The Rangers reached the Olympic break playing their best hockey of the season, having won five of six and 11 of 15; and Thursday night, playing their first game in three weeks, the Blueshirts did not skip a beat, skating to an impressive 2-1 victory over the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks at Madison Square Garden.
The victory was the second in as many tries against the 2013 champs this season for the Rangers, who will skate against the Flyers down in Philadelphia Saturday afternoon before returning home to host the Boston Bruins on Sunday night. The Blueshirts also had skated out of Chicago on January 8th with a 3-2 victory on a late third-period goal by Carl Hagelin.
Cam Talbot gave Olympic silver medalist Henrik Lundqvist an extra day to recover from his journey home from Sochi and came within 11.6 seconds of his third shutout of the season. Peter Regin ruined his shutout bid, but Talbot still saved the game by stopping Patrick Kane's slam dunk try at the buzzer, following a tricky Marian Hossa shot. Talbot improved his record to 11-5-0, earning his first victory since January 18th in Ottawa, with his 31-save effort on Thursday.
"Neither one of us knew how much time was left so it was more a desperation save than anything," Talbot said of his last-second heroics. "I just stuck my left pad out there and I figured he'd try and whack at it with how little time there was. It was a huge win for us and a good measuring stick for us. We know we can beat any team down the stretch here, and we're going to need a lot of efforts like this going forward."
Derick Brassard scored the game's first goal, extending his consecutive games point-scoring streak to seven in the process, while J.T. Miller picked up an assist and played a solid game following his recall from Hartford on Wednesday.
Holding a precarious 1-0 lead late in regulation, Rick Nash provided the Rangers breathing room by scoring his team-leading 19th goal with 4:07 to play. Sent in on Chicago goalie Corey Crawford on a pretty Derek Stepan pass, Nash at first failed to get a shot off, but retained possession of the puck, curled by the left circle, and then snapped a nasty shot under Crawford's blocker to put New York up 2-0.
"It's a huge win and two points," said Nash after the game. "I thought it was a great defensive game, and Talbot was the first star by far. He was unbelievable."
It took about five minutes or so before the two teams found their collective legs, but once they did the Rangers and Blackhawks settled into an evenly-played first period before the home team had a slight advantage in the middle 20 minutes. The result was that the Rangers carried a 1-0 lead into the second intermission on a Brassard goal midway through the opening period.
Brassard beat Crawford on his own rebound following a long sustained shift in the Blackhawks end of the ice in which the Rangers' forecheck was as good as it would be all night long. When it seemed as though Chicago was finally going to clear the puck out of their zone, Miller harassed Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews into a turnover, and Brassard capitalized following a feed from Benoit Pouliot with his 12th goal of the season at the 10:14 mark of the first.
The assist was just part of a strong--and eventful--first period for Miller who logged six minutes five seconds of ice-time in the place of the injured Mats Zuccarello alongside Brassard and Pouliot, recorded a pair of quality shots on goal, recorded two hits, was penalized late for hooking, and then was pushing and shoving with Patrick Sharp as the horn sounded.
"I was just trying to get myself into the game as fast as possible, and we had a good first period as a team," explained Miller, who played 12:18 overall in the contest. "Every time I'm called up is a new opportunity and I'm going to try and take advantage of it."
Brad Richards came within inches of doubling the Rangers lead with 4:45 to play in the first when his left wing snap shot rang off iron behind Crawford, though Chicago finished strong and ended up holding a 12-11 shots advantage after one period of play.
The Rangers controlled longer stretches of action in the second period, but could not get one by Crawford in the middle twenty, while Talbot was strong at the other end of the ice stopping all seven shots he faced including a point-blank try early on by Regin from the low slot. Talbot also looked extremely sharp on a pair of rapid-fire back-to-back scoring chances down low from Chicago midway through the second, which elicited chants of "Talbot! Talbot!" from The Garden Faithful.
A misplay by Crawford--in which he let a long Dominic Moore slap shot slip between his pads before the puck was stopped short of the goal line--was as close as the Rangers came to scoring in the second period. Nash also had a point-blank try from 15 feet out, but Crawford kicked out the low snap shot with his left pad nearly ten minutes into the period.
Playing for the first time since helping Canada win Olympic gold last Sunday, Nash showed plenty of jump in his game leading the Rangers with five shots on goal while also playing a major role on the team's penalty killing unit which went a perfect 3-for-3 against the potent Blackhawks power play on Thursday.
"The last two days have been a bit tough with jetlag, trying to catch up on your sleep, but tonight felt pretty good," stated Nash, whose goal was his first in six games.