The surging Rangers accomplished the near-unthinkable Saturday night in San Jose, beating the Sharks 3-1 to complete a three-games-in-four-nights sweep of their California road trip, running their overall winning streak to five consecutive games in the process. The red-hot Rangers have now won 13 of their last 14 games dating to December 8th.
This is the first time in franchise history that the Rangers beat the Sharks, Anaheim Ducks, and Los Angeles Kings on the road in the same season, and the first time they beat those three teams along with the Vancouver Canucks, Edmonton Oilers, and Calgary Flames on the road in the same season. New York swept that Western Canadian road swing, too, last month.
"I think it just proves what this team is about and what we can accomplish when we play to our strengths and focus on our roles and our jobs," explained team captain Ryan McDonagh after the game. "You look at the ways we won, we won in kind of different fashions..tonight it was defensive, kind of a sloppier way to win. We're excited about what we've got going here."
Henrik Lundqvist was often-sensational in victory Saturday, showing much toughness, as well, as the Sharks charged hard into his crease throughout the game creating much contact with the Rangers No. 1 netminder. Lundqvist, who made 30 saves, preserved a late 2-1 Rangers lead in the third period by standing his ground to deny a shorthanded rush by Marc-Edouard Vlasic before Vlasic slid hard into Lundqvist's leg and continued on into the back of New York's net.
"All I know is that we won, we got the two points, and that plane ride home is going to feel really good tomorrow," said Lundqvist, while wearing the Broadway Hat.
Veteran defenseman Dan Boyle was held off the score sheet in his return to San Jose for the first time since signing with the Blueshirts as a free agent this past summer following six seasons of playing with the Sharks. The Sharks organization showed a video tribute to Boyle on the jumbotron during a television timeout in the first period, and he received a standing ovation when he waved to the crowd afterwards.
"It felt amazing, it felt great," said Boyle, who also broke his nose on the game's first shift when elbowed by former teammate James Sheppard. "I am just so thankful and grateful, number one, for being at this level in the NHL, and for having played for a team like the Sharks for six years. That was something I'm not going to forget, an amazing minute that will last me for a long time."
The game did not exactly start the way the Rangers would have wanted, but yet by time the first intermission arrived the visitors held a 2-0 lead. Boyle was injured on the game's first shift and had to head to the dressing room with team trainer Jim Ramsay as blood poured down his face and throat, ultimately missing about seven minutes worth of game action. And the Sharks relentless aggressive forecheck pinned the Rangers in their own end for the first five minutes of the contest.
However with Lundqvist making several key early saves, the Rangers righted themselves and proceeded to score the game's first goal at the 10:40 mark of the opening period. Stepan won an offensive zone face off, Kreider swept a quick pass to Martin St. Louis in the low slot, and the veteran winger found the back of the net with a snap shot, his 14th goal of the season, second in as many games, and third in the last five matches.
On the very next shift Mats Zuccarello zipped a shot past Sharks goalie Antti Niemi, but the puck caught the cross bar. Kreider then took an interference penalty, and the Sharks pressured for nearly the full two minutes in New York's end of the ice, but again Lundqvist was stout between the pipes and the Rangers killed it off.
Kreider made up for taking that penalty when he gave the Rangers a 2-0 lead at 15:13, scoring his eighth goal of the season. Stepan once again won a face off in the Sharks zone to start the scoring play. Dan Girardi slid along the right wall before wristing a shot on goal, and Kreider buried the rebound on New York's seventh shot of the game to make it 2-0.
"There's no doubt that Kreids was a huge part of our first two goals," noted head coach Alain Vigneault. "He's definitely playing well right now."
The second period was all about Lundqvist, who only had to face nine shots, but was exceptionally sharp on nearly all of them. In the first several minutes of the period, Lundqvist was forced into several difficult saves, including a one-two punch in which he kicked out a right wing shot to the left with his pad, then quickly re-set himself in time to kick out a left wing follow to his right.
"He was big-time tonight," McDonagh said of Lundqvist. "It was our third game in four nights and we might not have had our legs as much we would have liked, and they are a pretty good team that is highly creative and highly skilled, and Hank was sharp. We needed that from him."
Lundqvist got plenty of help from his hard-working teammates, who blocked 18 shots in the game. Through the second period Dan Girardi, John Moore, and Kevin Klein all had recorded three blocked shots. And Rick Nash, selected to play in his sixth NHL All Star Game earlier in the day, put forth a tremendous effort late in the period to catch San Jose forward Patrick Marleau on the back check, denying a scoring chance in front and eliminating him by crushing him into the net before flying into the cross bar himself.
The score remained 2-0 into the second intermission after St. Louis missed a wide-open tap-in to Niemi's right eight minutes into the middle stanza. Then 4:24 into the third period Niemi made a phenomenal glove save to rob Zuccarello's one-on-one backhand shot, with the on-ice no-goal call upheld by video review.
Less than two minutes later Niemi made another clutch stop, this one denying Stepan off a 2-on-1 shorthanded rush with Nash, before Lundqvist answered back with a great glove save on a Vlasic bomb from the left point. However, seconds later Sharks rookie Melker Karlsson chipped in a power play goal off a rebound in front, cutting the Rangers lead to 2-1 at 7:14 of the third period.
Nash, however, held off a pair of Sharks players with under a minute left to play, before flicking the puck into an empty net, for his 26th goal of the season, giving New York a 3-1 lead.
The Rangers will fly home Sunday, practice on Monday, and then will face off with the Islanders at Madison Square Garden Tuesday night.
"Three games in four nights against possibly the toughest stretch of teams, and we found a way to win them all," Boyle said in summing up the road trip. "Tonight it was guys digging deep, and we're going to keep riding this wave for as long as we can."