Cam Talbot tied a career-high by making 38 saves Sunday night as the Rangers returned home following a highly-successful five game road trip with a 2-1 victory over the Florida Panthers at Madison Square Garden.
"No doubt tonight was all about Cam," stated head coach Alain Vigneault. "One player gave us a chance to get two points. We were fortunate he was on top of his game."
Talbot made 20 of his saves during a second-period Florida blitz, but did not surrender a goal until midway through the third period, by which time the Rangers already held a 2-0 lead. His outstanding effort followed on the heels of Mackenzie Skapski's 20-save 2-0 shutout in Buffalo on Saturday night.
"There were shots coming from everywhere tonight," explained Talbot. "It's a big challenge to be square when they are moving the puck that well. Luckily we were able to weather the storm (in the second period)."
While Talbot--who has surrendered only six goals over his last six starts--was the major difference-maker and the game's No. 1 Star Sunday, the Rangers also benefited from the strong play of the team's fourth line, as well as that of defenseman Matt Hunwick, who had a goal and an assist while filling in for the injured Kevin Klein. Fourth-liner James Sheppard also scored for New York, while linemates Dominic Moore (two assists) and Jesper Fast (assist) both found their way on to the score sheet.
"We blocked a lot of shots," said Talbot. "Guys did a great job of getting in the lanes and blocking some big ones for us."
The victory gives New York an impressive 14-1-3 record over its last 18 games. At the conclusion of Sunday's game the Rangers sit atop the National Hockey League with 95 points.
"I think we have a resilient group," noted Hunwick, who wore the Broadway Hat following the victory. "We seem to find ways to win, whether it's defensemen scoring goals or the third or fourth line. Our top guys have been great all year, but sometimes it's the guys maybe you wouldn't expect that help you win those close games once in a while."
Sheppard opened the scoring with his first as a Ranger--and career-high sixth overall this season--at 17:44 of the first period. Playing in the place of Tanner Glass--who sat out with upper body soreness--Sheppard completed a very strong shift by the team's fourth line when he deflected Hunwick's shot past Panthers goalie Dan Ellis while moving to the side of Florida's net. The puck also hit Moore on the way to Sheppard, who was credited with three hits and two blocks in 10:15 worth of ice time Sunday.
"We were just working down there and (the goal) kind of came out of nowhere," explained Sheppard. "Not that any goals are really expected, but this one was kind of just out of the blue. It was great to hear the fans erupt."
After outshooting the Panthers 12-6 in the opening period, the Rangers spent much of the second back on their heels. However Talbot was up to the task of bailing out his teammates, stopping all 20 shots Florida fired his way.
Talbot started the second with a stretching right-pad save on a Jimmy Hayes blast 1:45 into the period, and closed it out with some good fortune when Aaron Ekblad's slap shot hit the cross bar with 2:02 remaining. In between were huge saves on Jaromir Jagr, Aleksander Barkov, and Nick Bjugstad, and the best of all, robbing Willie Mitchell on a slam dunk one-timer at the 14-minute mark of the second.
Those heroics kept the Rangers in the lead, and 8:37 into the third period Hunwick doubled the home team's advantage with his first goal of the season--and, like Sheppard, his first as a Ranger. Hunwick's slap shot through a screen in front set up by Fast flew past the glove of Ellis, and Hunwick--so good this season when injuries sidelined fellow defensemen Dan Boyle and McDonagh--continued his strong two-way play. Hunwick now has ten points (1-9-10) and a very good +15 plus/minus rating in 42 games this season.
That goal by Hunwick proved to be the eventual game-winner when Florida's Brandon Pirri finally found a way to beat Talbot with 9:49 to play in regulation following an offensive zone face off win by Bjugstad. Talbot made a few more clutch saves down the stretch, and the Rangers killed off a McDonagh penalty with 2:24 left on the clock, before their fifth straight win was officially in the books.
Also before this game was over Martin St. Louis left the team's bench and skated gingerly to the dressing room, and did not return. Though not disclosing the nature of his injury, Vigneault said after the game that "it doesn't seem to be anything serious, but we'll know more tomorrow."
Prior to the contest the Rangers organization saluted Boyle for having played in his 1,000th National Hockey League game last week in Detroit. He was joined on the ice during the pre-game ceremony by his wife Amber, daughter Eastin, son Wesley, and his parents.
The Rangers return to action Wednesday night when they host the Chicago Blackhawks at MSG.