A berth in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs may have been secured with the Devils loss to Calgary on Monday night, but the Rangers still are fighting for home-ice advantage in the first round of the post-season, so their 4-1 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden stood as a statement of a team that is still hungry and has something important to play for.
Despite a slow start, and surrendering the game's first goal, there was much for the Rangers to feel good about Tuesday night. Marty St. Louis picked up three assists--his first multiple-point game as a Ranger since being acquired from the Lightning; Brad Richards scored a pair of goals--his first multiple-goal game since October 7th in Los Angeles; the power play was 2-for-3 after entering play on a 4-for-47 slide; and Mats Zuccarello earned an assist and drew a pair of penalties against Carolina on a night he was named the 2014 recipient of the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award.
"It's going to be important to have all the players play at their top level going into the playoffs," stated goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who stopped 27 of 28 shots Tuesday. "We are going to face some really good teams, so especially when your top guys play like they did tonight and have of late, that is going to be big for us."
The win gives the Rangers 93 points on the season as the Blueshirts maintain a two-point lead on the Philadelphia Flyers for second place in the Metropolitan Division. The Flyers, who beat the Florida Panthers on Tuesday night, have three games left on their schedule, while the Rangers have two to play--Thursday at home against the Buffalo Sabres and Saturday night in Montreal.
"We talked about it before the game that we've been playing good hockey for a long time and that we want to go into the playoffs feeling good about our game," explained head coach Alain Vigneault. "I think for the most part tonight, that's what we did. Offensively we had one of our best scoring-chance nights of the year."
After a sluggish start the Rangers found their footing late in the first period and turned the game decidedly in their favor in the second, with Richards and the power play doing the most damage to Carolina.
Trailing 1-0--and lucky to be down just one as Henrik Lundqvist already was forced to stop Alexander Semin on a breakaway and Jay Harrison twice on prime chances during the same sequence earlier in the period--the Rangers pulled even at the 15:44 mark of the opening period when Richards wired a left-wing shot on the power play past Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward. The goal came just nine seconds after Semin was sent to the box for hooking John Moore.
Derek Stepan--who earned the secondary assist and now has 21 points in 21 games since the Olympics--won an offensive zone faceoff and St. Louis made the cross-ice pass to Richards. The veteran center patiently waited, and Ward gave him too much of the short side, exactly where Richards zipped the puck past the 'Canes netminder.
It was the first time St. Louis had assisted on a goal scored by Richards since they were Tampa Bay Lightning teammates on February 7, 2008--three weeks before Richards was traded to the Dallas Stars. As it turned out there would be more St. Louis-Richards magic to come later in the game on Tuesday night.
"It's nice to get rewarded on so many plays," shared St. Louis, who now has seven points in 18 games wearing the Blueshirt. "It was definitely a feel-good game for me, and I thought the team played really well."
The next magic, however, would come in the form of a brilliant Zuccarello fake and pass to set up Benoit Pouliot 50 seconds into the second period to give New York a 2-1 lead. With the puck on his stick in the high slot Zuccarello faked a slap shot to freeze both Ward and his defenders as Pouliot skated in on left wing. Zuccarello then whipped a pass to the wide-open Pouliot, and he buried his 14th goal of the season into the back of the cage to provide the Rangers their first lead of the game.
It was all part of a very special evening for Zuccarello.
"I don't think I can describe it in words," Zuccarello said of winning the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award, which is voted on by the fans. "It's surprising, and I am really humbled. I have to thank everyone, it's really big for me. I would probably put it as one of the highs in my career."
When asked for his reaction to his good friend winning this much-respected award, Lundqvist left no doubt how he felt about it.
"It was a great choice by the fans," stated Lundqvist. "I'm just happy he's grown into his role now. I think last year and the year before it might have been a little tougher with a different system, but now it's a system where we let guys play a little bit more and he's just so skilled of a player. He's one of the best, I think, in the league to see plays open up and create opportunities for his linemates. He has to work really hard for it because of his size, and he's takes nothing for granted."
St. Louis and Richards would hook up again at 13:36 of the second--again on the power play--to increase the home team's lead to two goals. This time St. Louis earned the secondary assist with Dan Girardi picking up the primary with a give and go feed to Richards, who blasted a slap shot from just inside the blue line past Ward for his 20th goal of the season, and fourth in the last eight games.
The goal marked the tenth time in Richards' NHL career in which he has scored 20 or more goals--the second time in thee seasons with the Rangers. He now has five power play goals on the season.
"I thought tonight he was really good," St. Louis said of Richards. "He had a couple of goals, obviously, but he had other quality chances and put himself in the right spot and made some great plays. I'm really happy for him."
Stepan scored 4:38 into the third period to give New York a 4-1 lead. He was beneficiary of a gorgeous cross-crease pass from St. Louis. Anton Stralman also assisted, his second helper of the night.
Swedish rookie Jesper Fast, recalled from Hartford on Monday, was in the Rangers' lineup Tuesday, skating on a line with Richards and Carl Hagelin. He logged 13:54 worth of ice time, recording one shot on goal, though he did draw some "oohs" from the crowd when he leveled Carolina's Jordan Staal with an open-ice hit near the red line in the second period.