Derek Stepan scored the tying goal in the waning seconds of regulation Monday night, and then netted the game-winner with under a minute to play in overtime as the Rangers rallied past the Columbus Blue Jackets 4-3 at a rocking Madison Square Garden. Their fourth consecutive victory lifted the Blueshirts to 109 points on the season, most in the entire National Hockey League.
The team's magic number to clinch first place in the Eastern Conference is down to one, while the magic number to win the Presidents Trophy is now two. The Rangers have three games remaining on their schedule--Tuesday night in New Jersey against the Devils, Thursday at MSG versus the Ottawa Senators and Saturday afternoon against the Washington Capitals down in the nation's capital.
"It's a huge accomplishment, but it's obviously not done yet," team captain Ryan McDonagh said of the possibility of winning the Presidents Trophy. "We just stick with our process and stick with our structure. Obviously we never give up. Tonight (we) take it into overtime and let Step do the rest."
Stepan beat Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky with a calm one-on-one move with only 49.6 seconds remaining in overtime to lift the Blueshirts to the wild victory on Monday--snapping Columbus' franchise-best nine-game winning streak in the process. Keith Yandle, a playmaking machine all night, was credited with the lone assist on the game-winner.
Stepan had also scored with 27.5 seconds remaining in regulation to tied the score, 3-3, and force overtime. McDonagh's slap shot was tipped in front by J.T. Miller, and Chris Kreider then directed the puck to a wide-open Stepan who buried his 15th goal from the bottom of the left circle as The Garden erupted in a deafening roar. Stepan recorded his sixth three-point game of the season on Monday, finishing with two goals and an assist.
"I think in order to have success in the playoffs you have to be able to handle ebbs and flows in games and you have to be able to respond when your game's not quite there," Stepan explained post game. "We've been able to find ways to win hockey games when we haven't been as sharp as we'd like to be. Tonight you have to give credit to Hank because he was arguably our best player all night long."
Only thirty seconds before Stepan's tying goal Bobrovsky had seemingly saved the night for his club when he dove forward to rob Dan Girardi on a point-blank try with 55.4 seconds to play. Bobrovsky ended up stopping 38 of New York's 42 shots, and had made five saves in overtime until Stepan lit the lamp to end the contest.
With the scored tied 2-2 earlier in the third period, former Ranger Brandon Dubinsky had burned his former team, finishing off a 4-on-3 Columbus rush, to put the Blue Jackets ahead at the time 3-2. The goal was Dubinsky's 12th of the season, and his second in seven career games against the Blueshirts.
Despite allowing three goals, Henrik Lundqvist was among the Rangers best players on Monday. He finished with 29 saves, and was exceptionally sharp against a a Blue Jackets team which generated a string of quality scoring chances throughout the contest. Lundqvist made two of his saves during overtime.
"I think there are always things we can do better, but again it's about finding ways to win," offered Lundqvist, who has backstopped all four victories on the Rangers current winning streak. "I thought it was a good hockey game and in the end it came down to making the big plays at the right time and we did."
Twice in the first two periods the Rangers scored and twice the Blue Jackets came right back to tie the game, leaving the teams in a 2-2 deadlock after 40 minutes of play. Lundqvist was the best player on the ice for either team, extremely sharp with 12 first-period saves and ten more in the second, including a pair on clear Columbus breakaways.
Martin St. Louis gave New York a 1-0 lead just 5:38 into the contest, scoring his 21st goal of the season--and first after returning three games ago from a knee injury. Kevin Hayes took the puck away at center ice and turned it around on a quick rush up left wing. As he cut towards the net Hayes lost control of the puck, but St. Louis followed the play up, collected the loose disc and zipped it past Bobrovsky.
At that point the Rangers were outshooting Columbus 6-1, but the Blue Jackets woke up and recorded the next ten shots on goal. Lundqvist held Columbus at bay until 2:40 remaining in the first when Matt Calvert poked home a loose puck off a scramble, tying the game, 1-1.
Again the Rangers started strong in the next period, with Girardi scoring his fourth goal of the season just 36 seconds into the period. Stepan, after accepted a Kreider feed above the left circle, swung a pass to his right to a wide-open Girardi, and the Blueshirt defenseman did not make a mistake, beating Bobrovsky for the go-ahead score.
"It's always nice to get one and help the team out a little bit offensively," said Girardi
The Rangers maintained their lead thanks to Lundqvist who first stoned Cody Goloubef with a left-pad save on a clean breakaway out of the penalty box at 10:40 and then denied Ryan Johansen with a pretty glove save on a shorthanded break three minutes later.
"I try to feel good about every save I make, but obviously when it's a tight game and there's some big opportunities for them, it's my job to stop them," explained Lundqvist. "It feels good."
However the Blue Jackets were able to pull even again at 14:42 when Marko Dano buried the rebound of an Artem Anisimov shot from between the circles. The goal was Dano's eighth of the season--with three of those coming against the Rangers.
The next-best chance to snap the tie came six minutes into the third period when New York's Yandle skated in on left wing and hammered a power play slap shot off the post. Two minutes later Dubinsky found the back of the net for the Blue Jackets and the Rangers trailed for the first time in the game.
However Stepan would step up and save the day for the Rangers, and as a result the Blueshirts are on the verge of securing their first regular season title in 21 seasons.