NEW YORK – The question wasn’t who are these guys, it was who were those guys on Sunday?
The Rangers’ effort two nights ago, against one of the league’s most inept defensive teams, was woeful. They were a step behind from the opening faceoff to the final buzzer. They were playing like two teams in one – the forwards weren’t communicating with the defense, and the backline wasn’t connecting with the frontline.
“We wanted to respond,” said alternate captain Marc Staal. “We obviously weren’t happy with the weekend, we know what kind of team we are. We just need to get that confidence to play like that consistently.”
On Tuesday, against one of the best teams in the league and certainly the hottest team, the Rangers (7-6-2) were the exact opposite. There were no shortcuts. The Penguins (10-3-1) came into action on a seven-game winning streak, outscoring their opponents 32-8 over the span. Their power play, ranked No. 1 in the league, was converting at a ridiculous 37.5%. Their penalty kill hadn’t allowed a goal in 37 consecutive chances.
“It starts from the top of the organization, works its way down to the leaders, and finishes at our young guys,” said alternate captain Derek Stepan about the ability of the team to rebound so quickly from a bad stretch. “It’s a whole group making a conscious effort to make sure we compete. It is way more fun playing that way than it is playing the way we did over the weekend.”
By the end of action, Pittsburgh’s winning streak was over, its power play was held scoreless, and the penalty kill’s 10-game streak of perfection had been vanquished in a 5-0 Rangers win at Madison Square Garden.
“Not one guy in this room was happy or was going to accept the way we played the last game,” Staal said. “We wanted to respond. Our energy level, our emotion – on the bench and throughout the game – everyone was engaged.”
It was a virtuoso performance by a Rangers team that played its worst game in years on Sunday. They got embarrassed by the Oilers, a rudderless outfit that’s been one of the worst teams in the league during the season’s first month.
Just like that, after a day off on Monday to recharge, recover, and most importantly forget, the Rangers were back at it. Alain Vigneault said after Tuesday’s morning skate he had moved past the awful performance, and by the five-minute marker in the first period it was clear his team had, too. It can turn that quickly.
“We had turned the page and moved on,” the second-year Rangers bench boss said. “We were focused on tonight. We knew that to be able to compete against a team like Pittsburgh who were on top of their game, we needed a total team effort. That’s what we got tonight from our goaltender out.”
“We talked about going into this game we had to play our absolute best, and I think this is something that had to happen after the two games we played [over the weekend],” said Henrik Lundqvist, who earned his NHL-leading third shutout of the season and 53rd of his career. “If we want to be the team we want to be, after two games like that we have to come back with our absolute best to show ourselves how we have to play.”
It did turn that quickly. The Rangers regrouped, and in a rematch of last season’s classic seven-game conference semifinals, they were the better team, the hungrier team, and the more physical team. In short, they played the way Vigneault expects his team to play at all times.
“I think it means one win,” said Rick Nash, who scored a shorthanded goal to finish the scoring in the third period, his league-leading 12th of the season. “It all depends how we come back and answer on Thursday. We’ll enjoy this one tonight, then be back to work for Thursday.”
“In this league, it’s not about being great all the time, it’s about being consistent,” Lundqvist said. “That’s why the teams that are up there are up there. You can beat any team in this league if you’re committed and smart. It’s more about being consistent than being great all the time.”
Dan Boyle (fractured right hand) participated fully in the morning skate, and coach Alain Vigneault said he expects to have his defenseman available later this week, perhaps on Thursday when they host the Avalanche, who got snowed in by the Isles on Long Island, 6-0.
Late in the third period, Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider collided in neutral ice. When he got to the bench, Vigneault was laughing at his recently-returned center, who said he was fine after the game.
“I think I won that one,” the jovial Stepan deadpanned after the game. “You can ask Chris tomorrow, I don’t think he’s happy with it. I was feeling it. It’s like he punched me in the gut. But I win.”