Derek Stepan returned to the lineup Friday night in Columbus and contributed a pair of assists, sparking the Rangers to a 2-1 victory over the Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena. The win snapped a mini two-game slide for the Rangers, who still have won 14 of their last 17 games.
Stepan, who had missed Thursday's 3-0 loss in Boston with an upper body injury suffered Tuesday against the Islanders, skated Friday morning to test his injury, and then took part in pre-game warmups. After declaring himself ready to go, head coach Alain Vigneault reinserted Stepan into the lineup and the team's top center assisted on second period goals by Marc Staal and Chris Kreider in New York's bounce back victory.
"He's an all situations guy, a calming influence when he's got the puck, making smart decisions," Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh said of Stepan. "It was great to see him out there. I know he wasn't feeling the best, but he's a gutsy player, one who does whatever it takes to help his team win."
Stepan said after the game that he did not play in pain, and that there was no doubt in his mind after skating in the morning that he would play Thursday night.
"I thought there was some good energy tonight, especially in a back to back," said Stepan. "The second period was a big period, and the third period (in which New York was outshot 12-2) we were able to find a way to get a win. Henrik (Lundqvist) stepped up a and made some big saves for us."
Henrik Lundqvist, who backed up Cam Talbot the night before, put forth a stellar performance in goal for the Rangers, finishing with 35 saves. He was especially good when the Blue Jackets surged early--stopping all 14 first-period shots he faced--and in the third period after Columbus had pulled within a goal, making 11 saves in the final period of play.
"First of all it was just huge for us to get a win," explained Lundqvist. "Coming off two losses you want to turn things around. When you get used to winning, losing is terrible. It doesn't really matter how we do it. This game was not pretty, but we found a way."
It was a far more engaged Rangers team Friday then the one that had been shut out in each of their previous two games this week. Their first power play of the game, in the opening period, produced seven shots on goal as New York generated far more scoring chances than in the defeats Tuesday and Thursday; and the team played more physically and with more controlled intensity, too.
The Rangers challenged--and ultimately blocked--a number of Blue Jacket shots, and also were on the giving side of a number of crunching hits, including a Tanner Glass bomb which left Columbus defenseman James Wisniewski sprawled on the ice 4:30 into the middle period. Eight seconds later Glass was challenged to a fight by Columbus center Jared Boll, and Glass' second fight in as many nights ended with the rugged Ranger on top of his Blue Jacket counterpart. Later in the second period Kevin Klein dropped the gloves with Jeremy Morin of the Blue Jackets, with Klein rocking Morin near the end of the bout.
"We had to fight for every inch out there," stated McDonagh. "Glass and Klein what they did, that means a lot to our team, it goes a long way."
A minute after Glass' crunching check and subsequent fight the Rangers broke a scoreless tie, netting their first goal in 146 minutes 59 seconds of hockey, dating to Rick Nash's empty-net goal in San Jose last Saturday night. Staal was credited with his second goal of the season at 5:59 of the second period when he pushed the puck underneath Columbus netminder Sergei Bobrovsky and over the goal line off a scramble in the crease. Stepan and Klein earned the assists.
The Rangers doubled their lead at 10:10 of the second when Stepan sprung Kreider on a breakaway with a beautiful outlet pass. Kreider came at Bobrovsky with speed, and beat the All Star goalie with a slick backhand finish--the same move that was denied by Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask just 24 hours prior. The goal was Kreider's ninth of the season, and was assisted by Stepan and Martin St. Louis. Stepan now has 29 points in 29 games played this season.
Columbus cut into that Rangers lead when Scott Hartnell beat Lundqvist on a breakaway 3:16 into the third period. After Bobrovsky robbed Nash on the doorstep, Columbus center Ryan Johansen quickly collected the loose disc and zipped a long pass the other way to Hartnell who had gotten behind Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh. Hartnell then fired a forehand shot into the cage for his ninth goal, and the visitor's lead was cut in half.
The two teams proceeded to play an exciting brand of back and forth hockey the remainder of the period, with Lundqvist being the difference, preserving the lead and a much-needed victory for the Rangers, who will conclude their three-game road trip Sunday afternoon when they skate against the Pittsburgh Penguins.