NEW YORK – Hockey can sometimes be a cruel game. It can sometimes be a vicious game. And sometimes, it can be a forgiving game.
Sunday night against the Maple Leafs, the game was forgiving, as the Rangers used a pair of fortuitous bounces to skate past Toronto (5-9-4), 4-3.
In the second period, Derek Stepan wristed the puck towards Leafs goalie Jonathan Bernier (26 saves) from center-ice – a shot officially measured at 86 feet away. The puck somehow skittered through Bernier’s five-hole and into the back of the net, giving the Rangers a 2-1 lead.
“My thought is, give him a tough one to handle, you never know,” Stepan said of the long-distance goal, his fifth of the season. “Worst-case scenario, he has to deflect it into the corner and we’re able to get a puck on it. I try to do that every time I can because it is a tough play for goaltenders to handle.”
The bounces continued into the final minute. With the game tied, Ryan McDonagh’s harmless wrister from the point was sloppily parried by Bernier, the rebound left right out in front of the crease. Red-hot Mats Zuccarello got to the puck first and slid it in with 53.8 seconds left in regulation, lifting the Rangers to their ninth-straight win, a 4-3 victory. It’s their longest win streak since the 1972-73 season.
“If we keep working hard, we’re going to get bounces,” said defenseman Dan Girardi. “If we’re not playing well and sitting back, we’re not going to get those type of bounces. I think you got to work for all your bounces, just overall we’re not satisfied in here, so that’s why we keep being successful every night, and we keep finding different ways to win.”
“Of course it’s a good thing for a team, but you always know that sometimes the bounces can turn around and start bouncing against you,” said goaltender Antti Raanta, who became the first goalie in Rangers history to win his first four starts with the franchise. “How we scored today, the second goal; that happens once in 100 games. We take that goal, we got a little bit of a lucky bounce on the fourth goal, also. Two points, that’s what we need.”
Zuccarello, who also had two assists, had his second three-point game in the last three – and his third of the season. The dynamic Norwegian playmaker has 18 points in his last 17 games.
“I think the way he’s playing, and the way everyone’s talking about him every game, it’s starting to become something that he does every single night,” Stepan said. “It’s great to see. I don’t know if there’s a guy playing better hockey in the NHL right now other than Mats Zuccarello.”
“This is a team game, and the whole team played well,” Zuccarello said, before complimenting his linemates. “[Rick Nash] does a really good job forechecking and making plays, [Derick Brassard] – both of them are unbelievable players. I feel like we got a good chemistry going right now, the puck is finding us, and we’re getting some bounces. It’s nice.”
“He’s so small, so the guys don’t see him usually on the ice,” joked Raanta of the generously-listed 5’7” Zuccarello. “He’s a skillful guy, great eye all the time on the ice. When he gets the chance to score, he usually scores. That kind of guy we need to have in the lineup. It’s fun to watch him play.”
Meanwhile, this breakaway Rangers train continues to motor on. Their nine-game win streak is tied for third-longest in franchise history and is one away from tying the team record. They’re 14-2-2 through 18 games. Their 14 wins and 30 points are the most through 18 games in franchise history.
“We got a good streak going here, but no one in here is happy,” Girardi said. “We’re not laughing and joking before the game. We’re serious, we know we want to keep this thing rolling. No matter what it is off the ice or on the ice, trying to do more to get better, and I think that’s what we’re doing so well right now.”
“We’ve got nine in a row right now, and you feel it in the room,” Zuccarello said. “Everyone is comfortable, it’s not that tight. I have some good bounces going in right now, hopefully it’s going to last. We’re at nine wins in a row right now, and that’s the most important thing.”
The Rangers scored the game-winning goal in the final minute of regulation for the first time since Dec. 17, 2011, when Brad Richards scored inside the final second of a game against the Coyotes.
The Rangers improved to 5-0-0 this season in the second half of a back-to-back set, including 15-1-1 in their last 17. They’ll play 17 back-to-back sets this season.
The Rangers held a pre-game moment of silence for the victims of Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris and played “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem, prior to the Canadian and American national anthems.