NEW YORK – As the season of giving reaches its apex, the Anaheim Ducks decided to hand out some holiday cheer on the ice.
The New York Rangers aren’t complaining.
Derick Brassard took advantage of a pair of inexcusable Ducks (12-15-6) turnovers, one in the first period and another in the third. After Rickard Rakell tied the game at 2 with 2:54 remaining in the third period, Mats Zuccarello scored the overtime winner to lift the Rangers (20-12-4) to a 3-2 win at Madison Square Garden.
After coming into the game with a 3-9-2 record over their previous 14 games, and after allowing 31 goals over their previous six, the Rangers played a hard-nosed, physical, defense-first game, committing almost none of the ghastly turnovers and missed defensive assignments that had become a staple over the last few weeks.
“It was a really great win for us,” Zuccarello said. “When we lose, no one is more upset than the guys in this room, but we have to stick together. We’re a family in here and we work hard for each other.”
“In any sport, there’s a lot of good teams that go through struggles,” Brassard said after his 7th-career multi-goal game. “We’re not the only team in the league [struggling] right now; we’re trying to stay positive, trying to find solutions. At the end of the day, we just have to work hard and compete. The rest is going to take care of itself.”
“It’s definitely been challenging last couple weeks,” said goaltender Henrik Lundqvist (17 saves). “After that [16-3-2] start, I think we all felt good, and then to have this type of stretch, obviously it’s disappointing. You try to deal with it the best way possible.”
It was a defensive slog throughout; the Rangers allowed a total of 19 shots, while they took ten shots on goal during the opening 40 minutes, five in each period.
“There’s no doubt the number of goals we’ve given up the last few games, we had a real strong focus tonight on playing better team defense, which I thought for the most part we did,” said coach Alain Vigneault. “Usually when you play good defense the offense will take care of itself. That’s sort of what happened tonight.”
“It was definitely a lot better,” said forward Derek Stepan. “There’s still some things that need to be cleaned up, but you look at both teams tonight, both teams were obviously very focused on playing defense. We have to make sure we continue to play that way because that’s what’s given us success every year is playing good defense.”
“I don’t think it mattered how we won, we just wanted to win really badly,” said defenseman Dan Boyle, who threaded the pass to Zuccarello for the game-winner during a 4-on-3 power play in overtime. “I don’t know that it was the prettiest of hockey games at all, but we fought. There was a lot of ugly battles, but we found a way to come through.”
Perhaps that’s the kind of game they needed after weeks of undisciplined, defensively-unreliable performances that sent their game – and confidence — careening off a cliff.
“We don’t want to create a monster here where we can’t recover,” Lundqvist said. “I think it’s important that we’re still in a pretty good spot. We had an amazing start, but it’s important that we address the things that need to be corrected and improved.”
Perhaps they needed a performance like this, ugly as it was, to try to rebuild some of that confidence as they break for the league-mandated holiday break. No practices or games are scheduled for any NHL team through Friday, though the Rangers will also take Saturday off since they don’t play again until facing Nashville on Monday.
“I think that break’s going to be good for our team,” Brassard said. “We just have to remind ourselves the way we played tonight when we go to play Nashville [next Monday].”
“This is a big break for us,” Vigneault said. “Our guys are going to enjoy it, and we’re going to come back focused and ready for a strong second-half push.”
The saying is, “Keep It Simple, Stupid.” The Rangers did simple very well on Tuesday. Now, after playing 11 games in their last 20 days, they get a chance to take a step back and prepare for the unofficial second half of the season.
“I think it’s a good feeling now going into the break,” Lundqvist said. “At least taking care of business in our last game. We were all very disappointed the way things have been going the last three weeks, but it’s been so many games, we haven’t really had time to sit down and reflect a little bit. I think now we get a few days to get away from the game, come back energized and hopefully ready to go.”
The Rangers played their final home game of the 2015 calendar year. They finished 2015 with a 27-11-3 record at the Garden, their second-most wins in one calendar year in franchise history. They won 30 home games in 1971.
The Rangers are 95-15-5 when allowing two or fewer goals since the start of the 2013-14 season.