By Jim Cerny, BlueshirtsUnited.com
All season long the Rangers have spoken about the need to achieve more consistency with their all-around game, as well as with their results. With the post-season just ten games away, it appears that the Rangers may indeed be finding that much sought after consistency.
Saturday night at the PNC Arena in Raleigh the Rangers skated to a 4-1 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes. The Rangers have now earned seven of a possible eight points over their last four games, going 3-0-1 in that stretch. They followed up Friday's thoroughly-impressive, yet somewhat-frustrating 2-1 shootout loss to the Eastern Conference leading Penguins in Pittsburgh with a workmanlike road win against the struggling Hurricanes 24 hours later.
The win strengthened the Rangers hold on seventh place as they now have 42 points, just two shy of sixth-place Ottawa. The loss was the fourth straight for Carolina, which is mired in a 1-10-1 funk. The Rangers have now won four straight games at PNC Arena, and six of their last seven, while they have beaten the Hurricanes in eight of their last nine meetings overall.
Henrik Lundqvist, who backstopped eight shutouts a year ago, came within 10 minutes 33 seconds of securing his first shutout of the 2013 season. However Zac Dalpe, just recalled from the minor leagues eralier in the day, one-timed a Jeff Skinner pass high into the cage midway through the third period to cut the Rangers lead to 3-1. Lundqvist, though, was rock solid with a season-high 48 saves, showing no ill effects from a slightly tweaked hamstring suffered during Friday's shootout.
Lundqvist was at his best in the third period when his tired teammates---playing on back-to-back nights on the road---tried to hold the desperate Hurricanes at bay. Lundqvist stopped 20 of 21 shots in the final period of play.
After a fairly wide-open, yet scoreless, first period, the Rangers erupted for three goals in the middle stanza, including a pair on the power play and two scored just 31 seconds apart. The Rangers top three goal scorers---Rick Nash, Derek Stepan, and Ryan Callahan---accounted for the scoring in the middle 20 minutes as the visitors skated into the second intermission with a 3-0 lead.
Stepan opened the scoring at the two-minute mark, skating into the slot to one-time a soft backhand pass from Brad Richards past Ellis for a power play goal. Skating up right wing after aheda-man feed from Ryane Clowe, Richards drew three Hurricane players towards him before he flipped his pass to Stepan, who was all alone in the slot. The goal was Stepan's 13th of the season and fourth on the power play.
Thirty-one seconds later Callahan made it 2-0 Rangers with his 11th goal of the season. Ellis got caught behind his net trying to play the puck, but Nash took it away and slid a quick pass towards the crease where Callahan stood without a defender near him. The Rangers captain deposited the puck into the cage and Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller used his timeout to try and settle down his team.
The Rangers continued to blitz the home team, however---they would fire 18 shots on goal in the second period---and at 11:19 Nash scored his team-high 15th goal to make it 3-0. After accepting a Mats Zuccarello pass in the slot, Nash whipped a spinning shot past a surprised Ellis for the score---the Rangers fifth power play goal in nine opportunities over the past three games.
Ellis finished the second period, but was pulled in favor of Justin Peters to start the third period. Ellis stopped 27 of 30 shots.
Though largely dominating play, the Rangers did have to rely on Lundqvist to make some key saves along the way, especially in a more evenly-played first period. Most impressive in that opening stanza were Lundqvist's pair of saves on Jeff Skinner blasts from the slot. In the second period Lundqvist stood out stopping Eric Staal's shorthanded rush, and also made a quick glove save on Zac Dalpe's low snap shot through traffic during a scramble at the 19-minute mark.
Both teams played with an edge in what was a pretty physical game featuring a string of post-whistle skirmishes around each team's net. Dan Girardi buried Eric Staal along the boards early in the opening period, and moments later was on the receiving end of a thunderous check from the angry Carolina captain. The diminutive Zuccarello stood out with his physical play throughout the night as he played with noticeable drive and energy.