The Rangers snapped a brief two-game skid Saturday night at Madison Square Garden, beating the Carolina Hurricanes 4-1, but not before surviving an injury scare to Henrik Lundqvist and some uneven play over the first half of the contest.
Lundqvist, who was down on the ice for several minutes after being hit in the throat by a deflected shot early in the second period, turned in a gem of a performance, stopping 31 of 32 shots, including all 15 he faced in the opening period. His toughness, coupled with clutch goaltending, were an inspiration to his teammates Saturday as the Blueshirts won for the 17th time in their last 23 contests.
"Everyone knows he's a competitor, and that's a hard thing to do as a goalie, keep your focus after something like that takes place," stated alternate captain Marc Staal. "He did that for us and gave us a chance to win the hockey game."
After scoring just one goal over their six periods of play following the All Star break, the Rangers scored twice on their first five shots Saturday night; but if not for Lundqvist that early 2-0 lead could have been completely evaporated and then some by the second intermission. Instead the Rangers, riding 24 Lundqvist saves at the point, carried a 2-1 lead into the final twenty minutes of play.
"The first half of the game we might have been up 2-0, and then 2-1 after they scored, but it was mostly because of Hank's play," explained head coach Alain Vigneault. "We may have been leading 2-0 after the first period, but (the Hurricanes) were the better team."
Rick Nash, the team's top offensive threat, got the Rangers off to a good start Saturday scoring an unassisted goal at 6:30 of the first period. It was a big lift for the Blueshirts, who were shut out by the Canadiens Thursday night after scoring only one goal late in Tuesday's 4-1 loss on Long Island.
Nash intercepted an Andrej Sekera pass just outside the Hurricanes blue line, then sped up left wing, before unleashing a hard snap shot from the circle that beat Carolina goalie Cam Ward to the short side, giving New York a much-needed early 1-0 lead. The goal was Nash's 29th of the season, tying him with Washington's Alex Ovechkin for the league lead, and it was also his first in four games against the Hurricanes this season.
The Rangers doubled their lead at 10:57 of the first on a simply gorgeous shorthanded goal scored by Dominic Moore. After collecting a Ryan McDonagh chip in his own end, Moore took off down left wing, then turned defenseman Justin Faulk inside out with a stunning move inside the 'Canes blue line. Moore then proceeded to cut untouched to the net where he beat Ward on a pretty backhand finish for his fourth goal of the season, and first shorthanded. It was the team's fifth shorthanded goal of the season.
Despite the lifts provided Nash and Moore, the Rangers were still outshot by a considerable margin, 15-8, in the opening period with Lundqvist being the clear difference maker, and Carolina controlling much of the play. That trend continued in the second period, despite the Rangers outshooting the Hurricanes 13-10, but with Lundqvist forced to make the much more difficult saves.
"Our first period we gave them a lot of Grade A chances again and we were a little bit sloppy with the puck," explained Staal, who finished the night a +2 in just over 20 minutes of ice time. "Our focus needs to be on starting the game better...but (Dom) made a great play there, and it was a huge goal for us."
Lundqvist started the second period with an outstanding athletic save just 1:40 into play. He lunged to his left to deny Andrej Nestrasil's rebound try, deflecting the puck with his left skate blade.
The Garden crowd roared its approval for that clutch save, but less than two minutes later the arena fell dead silent after Lundqvist was struck in the throat and was writhing in pain on the ice for several minutes while being attended to by trainers from both teams and a doctor.
On the play, 3:02 into the period, McDonagh's stick inadvertently got caught underneath Lundqvist's mask, lifting it up just as Brad Malone's right-wing shot was deflected in front by teammate Jay McClement. As Lundqvist's head snapped back from the McDonagh blow, the puck struck the area of his Adam's Apple, and the Rangers star netminder dropped face first to the ice, his legs kicking in pain behind him.
"I saw the shot and then felt a stick on my chin, and I had a bad feeling because I could kind of see the puck coming, but then I lost track of it," explained Lundqvist. "When I got hit, obviously it was pretty painful and it was hard to breathe for a couple of minutes, and I was light-headed and a little worried at first. (The trainers) told me to just breathe and then slowly it got better."
Eventually Lundqvist was able to rise to his knees as The Garden Faithful chanted his name; and when he stood and reached for his mask, the crowd erupted in a full standing ovation.
After the game Lundqvist joked that his brother--former NHLer Joel Lundqvist--was "an expert" at hitting him in the throat area with shots, so he was used to being struck in that sensitive area.
"We had so many fights growing up because he had a high slap shot and I got hit in the throat a lot of times," recalled a smiling Lundqvist, who moved into a tie for 20th place in NHL history by earning his 333rd career victory on Saturday.
Lundqvist made his first save after being shaken up one minute 45 seconds later, and was knocked into the back of his own net immediately afterwards when a Carolina player was checked hard in front of the Rangers net by Mats Zuccarello.
Adding insult to injury, though, Malone scored from in front for Carolina at 5:38, cutting the Rangers lead to 2-1. As the Hurricanes pressed their advantage after the goal, the Rangers struggled mightily to generate any offense, and spent much of the next five to eight minutes in their own end of the ice.
At that point Vigneault, who already tweaked his lines to start the game---putting J.T. Miller on a line with Nash and Derick Brassard and placing Zuccarello with Kevin Hayes and Carl Hagelin--changed the look of all four of his lines. Brassard centered Hagelin and Jesper Fast; Nash moved in alongside Derek Stepan and Martin St. Louis; Hayes and Zuccarello were joined by Chris Kreider; and Moore centered Miller and Tanner Glass.
"I'd say I was looking to put something that works together," offered Vigneault. "We were looking to put something together where we'd spend some time in the other team's end and put pressure on them. The first moves I made didn't work out, but the second ones did."
The moves sparked the Blueshirts, who closed out the period in strong fashion, and carried that momentum over into the third, where New York would eventually outshoot Carolina 16-7. Just a minute into the final period of play, St. Louis barely missed giving New York a two-goal lead when his backhand shot off the rush hit the cross bar behind Ward; and then at 9:40 Stepan's rising snap shot off the rush just caught a piece of Ward's glove and floated over the iron.
The Rangers then erupted for a pair of goals just 21 seconds apart midway through the third to put the game away. Kreider went to the net and buried a feed from Hayes for his 11th goal at 10:16, and then Dan Boyle drove a slap shot through traffic and past Ward for his fifth of the season at 10:37, with Hagelin and Fast assisting.
"I thought the second half of the game we played well, with a fast pace, and then in the third (period) we won the game," said Vigneault.
After an off day on Sunday, the Rangers continue their four-game home stand Monday night when they face the Florida Panthers.