Playing inspired hockey from start to finish mere hours after the NHL trading deadline had passed on Monday, the Rangers skated to an impressive 4-1 victory over the Nashville Predators, a team that had entered play with more points than any other in the NHL.
Nashville now only has five more points than the Rangers--89-84--as the Rangers moved back into a tie with the Islanders for first place in the Metropolitan Division. New York has won five of its last six games and is 9-1-2 in its last 12.
"I really thought for our team it was one of our more complete games in a while here," explained head coach Alain Vigneault. "We played real solid defensively against the number one team in the league and didn't give them a lot of looks. Offensively I thought we generated a lot. So I thought it was a real good game for us."
Defenseman Keith Yandle made his Rangers debut Monday after being acquired in a blockbuster trade with Arizona on Sunday. He primarily paired with Kevin Klein, though he also skated alongside Dan Boyle, at even strength; and he played all two minutes on the Rangers lone power play opportunity in the second period.
"It was awesome," said Yandle, who played 19 minutes 41 seconds and recorded three shots on goal. "A little bit of butterflies, nervous just a little bit being on a new team; but the crowd did a great job of welcoming me and my teammates in here made it really easy for me. It was a fun game, and great to get a win."
Winger Mats Zuccarello contributed a pair of assists to the victory on the same day the team announced he had agreed to a multi-year contract extension. Derick Brassard also had two assists for New York, who saw Jesper Fast return to the lineup after an 11-game absence due to a sprained knee.
Cam Talbot earned his career-high 13th victory of the season, playing solidly between the pipes for the Rangers, and finishing with 25 saves.
"I'm getting a lot more comfortable, a lot more confident," said Talbot, who hast started five games in a row and 13 of the 14 contests Henrik Lundqvist has been out injured. "It just seems like I'm letting the play come to me a little bit more as opposed to being overaggressive. It's a little bit easier knowing I'm in a bit of a groove now and the guys are maybe a little bit more comfortable with me playing every night."
The Rangers played nearly flawless hockey through the first two periods against the league-leading Predators, but one of their few mistakes ended up in the back of the net late in the second period cutting their 2-0 lead in half before the intermission.
New York had grabbed an early 1-0 advantage on Marc Staal's fifth goal of the season 6:36 into the opening period, and then doubled its lead at 4:14 of the second when Chris Kreider buried his 17th. Zuccarello earned the primary assist on each goal and Brassard notched the secondary helper on both.
On Staal's goal Brassard whipped a pass from right wing to left in the offensive zone and Zuccarello stopped the puck and teed it up for Staal, who skated into a hard shot from the circle which flew over the glove of Pekka Rinne and high into the net to give New York a 1-0 lead.
Zuccarello then made a gorgeous tape-to-tape cross-ice pass to Kreider, who came off the bench and flew into the offensive zone in time to capitalize on the pretty looking scoring play early in the second. Kreider's 17th goal tied his career high set as a rookie last season.
"Obviously this is where I want to be and I want to be a part of this team," Zuccarello said of his new contract after his two-point performance Monday. "I want to try and win with this team. This is home and it feels nice that I am going to be able to try and win with this team for a period (of time) now, and I feel real happy about that. I am really excited."
The Rangers had other prime chances to score against Rinne, but the Predators goalie made several big stops to keep his team in the game. In the first period Rinne scooted across his crease to kick out a Marty St. Louis one-timer before denying Rick Nash on a breakaway, making a pad save. Then in the second he got a piece of Carl Hagelin's rising left-wing shot, with the puck deflecting off the cross-bar, as well, just 2:12 into the period.
Though outshot 25-16 through two periods, Nashville got one back at the 15:24 mark of the middle stanza after a Rangers defensive zone turnover gave the Predators an opportunity. Down on his knees with his back to the net Nashville's Taylor Beck made a sweet pass to former Ranger Matt Cullen who buried the two-on-one--with only Yandle defending in front.
Talbot made sure the Rangers continued to hold the lead by making his best save of the night on rookie Filip Forsberg after the Predators forward had skated past Dan Girardi and cut across the crease before wristing a shot on goal with 2:34 to play in the period.
However Dominic Moore restored the Blueshirts two-goal advantage 5:51 into the third period when he potted the rebound of a Dan Girardi shot from his knees past a diving Rinne for his sixth of the season.
Nash closed out the scoring by firing his 38th goal of the season, into the empty net, with 44 seconds to play.
"I think we were excited and confident playing the best team in the NHL," said Staal, who was a +2 over 18:51 of ice-time. "We played a really solid game right from the start. It was a good test for us to play one of the best teams, and to come out on top was great."
The Rangers will play their next five games on the road, with their next home contest not for another 13 days. They will face the Red Wings in Detroit on Wednesday night and the Blackhawks in Chicago on Sunday the rest of this week.