NEW YORK – Give these Rangers credit for one thing during what’s been a stop-and-start season through 49 games.
They know when it’s not good enough. Nothing needs to be said.
After Sunday’s unacceptable no-show in Ottawa, coach Alain Vigneault was fuming while speaking with reporters, cutting his press conference short after roughly 90 seconds. He was equally as blunt before Monday’s 6-3 win over the Sabres, explaining why and how his team has underachieved for much of the last two months.
“I didn’t have to tell the team very much before the game,” Vigneault said. “Everybody knew that we had an opportunity here to go into the break on a positive note, that we didn’t play well [yesterday] and this was our chance to prove it. And I think the guys did that.”
Derick Brassard, who came into action mired in a five-game point-less streak, answered the challenge at Madison Square Garden, scoring a career-high five points, including his fourth two-goal game of the season, as the Rangers (27-17-5) used a four-goal third period to overcome some sloppiness and head into the All-Star break on a winning note.
“He had to be very displeased with his play [yesterday],” Vigneault said of Brassard, a native of the Ottawa area. “That’s his home, friends, family, everybody. He didn’t have a very good game, so there’s no doubt that he wanted to bounce back.”
“We needed it,” said goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. “We talked about wanting to feel good about our game going into the break, and to do that we needed to get the two points. I think we’ve been playing a lot better lately. I thought our performance was a lot better, and our determination was right on tonight.”
They sure didn’t make it easy on themselves. After Brassard gave the Rangers a 3-1 lead 66 seconds into the third period, the Sabres (19-26-4) took advantage of a pair of defensive breakdowns to tie the game with two goals in a span of 1:13.
“Listen, the story between Christmas and [the All-Star break] is our mistakes end up in the back of our net, and tonight was no different,” said forward Derek Stepan. “We had three mistakes end up in the back of our net.”
Sixty seconds after the Sabres tied it, J.T. Miller slammed home a pretty passing play to give the Rangers a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. Mats Zuccarello added some insurance on the power-play, as the man-advantage snapped a 1 for 34 skid.
“I think every team goes through it at some point, the power play struggles,” Stepan said. “There’s not one team in the NHL where the power play doesn’t go ice cold. We were in it. We score a big goal, and now our big thing is when we get back from break we’ve got to be starting on the right foot again.”
“We’ve been there before, but we responded in the right way,” said Lundqvist, who made 23 saves. “Our focus going into this game was two points. That’s what we needed. We got it done. It doesn’t matter how you do it, but we found a way.”
They head into the All-Star break a team that appears to be finding its way. Slowly but surely, and in fits and starts, they’re finding their way. They’ve won three of their last four, and have corrected many of the defensive miscues that marred much of December.
“Every game’s going to be really important,” Brassard said of the second half, which begins Feb. 2 at New Jersey. “I’m pretty confident in this team. We know we can do it. We’ve played some really big games last two years, and we’re going to try to bring that experience to the end of the season.”
“This is the time of the year that starts to get exciting,” Lundqvist said. “I love the second half of the season. The points are even more important and the adrenalin goes up as you get closer to the end of the season. So I look forward to coming back and starting the second half.”