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• Game Notes
By Jim Cerny, newyorkrangers.com
After a three-game road trip last week -- and after having played five of their previous six games away from home ice -- the Rangers return to Madison Square Garden tonight to face their Atlantic Division rival Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Rangers dropped the opener of their most recent road swing in Tampa 5-3 last Wednesday, but they finished with gutsy wins over the Florida Panthers and Nashville Predators on successive nights Friday and Saturday.
While the 3-0 shutout over the Panthers was quite impressive, the come-from-behind 2-1 shootout victory over the Predators 24 hours later is one that this team will remember for quite some time -- considering the many obstacles they had to overcome in achieving the important two points.
“I feel good about our team,” said Rangers head coach John Tortorella. “We may not win them all, and we may struggle at times, but I like what is going on with the club, and have for quite a while. It’s a team, from a coaching point of view, that you can’t get angry with because they haven’t taken many nights off here. There is some great stuff going on in that room.”
The character displayed by the Rangers on Saturday night was most impressive. Playing for the third time in four nights on the road, after arriving in the early morning hours in Nashville, and playing their ninth game in 14 days covering seven different cities, the Rangers ignored their collective fatigue, an early 1-0 deficit, and the fact that their top offensive force Marian Gaborik was ill and not in the lineup to secure a very gratifying victory.
“We’ve played a lot of hockey here, and the way we are trying to play is hard to do every night,” said Tortorella. “We get another road win, so the boys should feel really good about themselves.”
Following Saturday’s game, Tortorella was asked about Ryan Callahan’s clutch game-tying goal which was scored late in the third period. It prompted the head coach to rave about the player who embodies the Rangers’ gritty heart-and-soul approach to playing on a nightly basis.
“We don’t have to look far for the definition of what we want out players to be,” said Tortorella. “It’s right there in front of us every night. (Callahan) is what it’s about as far as being a Ranger, and good for him to score that goal because he does all the other things.”
One of the key ingredients to both victories this past weekend was the return to strong play of goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. After surrendering five goals in the first two periods in Tampa on Wednesday, Lundqvist allowed only goal in the following 145 minutes of the road trip.
Lundqvist stopped all nine shots he faced in the third period on Wednesday, denied all 40 he faced in shutting out the Panthers on Friday, and then saved 29 of 30 -- not to mention all three in the shootout -- on Saturday in Nashville.
The big-time goaltending of Lundqvist came exactly when the tired Rangers needed him to step up. And his teammates will certainly be looking to Lundqvist for another clutch performance again this evening.
“The last two games I think I am playing the way I have to play,” said Lundqvist. “I am not saying 100 percent that my game is back, but every night I feel like it’s been a step in the right direction.”
One of Lundqvist’s signature games this season came in the Rangers only other meeting against the Penguins so far. Two weeks ago in Pittsburgh, Lundqvist turned in a phenomenal 37-save outing as the Rangers edged the Penguins 3-2 in overtime, another in a series of “gut-check” wins already this year for the Blueshirts.
“It also really helps when the team is playing solid in front of me, it gives me confidence,” said Lundqvist. “And the guys have done a great job blocking shots and clearing pucks away. The guys have just worked so hard out there.”
Tonight’s game pits two of the hottest teams in the Eastern Conference. The Rangers have won four of their last five games and seven of 10. The Penguins have won six in a row and eight of nine, with their lone loss coming in overtime to the Rangers.
Pittsburgh currently sits in fourth place in the Eastern Conference standings with 32 points, while the Blueshirts are tied for fifth with 29. Both teams are looking up at the Flyers who lead the Atlantic Division with 34 points.
The game with the Penguins begins an important week of three straight games within the division for the Rangers. After tonight the Blueshirts play a home-and-home set with the Islanders, Thursday at the Nassau Coliseum and Friday at The Garden. Although they have had an extremely busy schedule, the Rangers have faced only one division opponent -- Pittsburgh on Nov. 15 -- since the first week of November.
“We’ve just got to keep grinding, keep finding ways to win,” said Tortorella. “We’ve been pretty good at that so far this year. We’ve just got to keep going with that.”
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