The New York Rangers were looking for their third straight win when the puck dropped in Saturday's game versus the Carolina Hurricanes. By winning tonight, the Rangers would also have their ninth straight victory over the Hurricanes. It seems they caught Carolina at the right time.
The Hurricanes entered this contest having lost four straight, helped by significant injuries to their squad. Their top two goaltenders, Cam Ward and Anton Khudobin, are both injured. Top defenseman Joni Pitkanen is out for the year. Tim Gleason, Jeff Skinner, Radek Dvorak, and Kevin Westgarth were also out of tonight's lineup. In fact, the Hurricanes had to turn to their third string goaltender - Justin Peters - to try to stop the bleeding.
But, the Rangers (6-7-0) would take full advantage of the Carolina's injury-depleted situation and earn that third straight victory after defeating Carolina 5-1. It was once again a solid team effort all over the ice, but it would especially be a big night for Derek Stepan and Carl Hagelin.
The Rangers started the game on their heels as the Hurricanes executed head coach Kirk Muller's game plan of keeping the pressure at center ice, dumping the puck, and forechecking hard. Within minutes, Carolina had a 6-2 shot edge early on the Rangers, which elicited an uneasiness from the Garden crowd and drew the ire of head coach Alain Vigneault. The Blueshirts adjusted their game, tightened up their defense, and shortened their passes in the defensive zone. Despite the effort given out by the injury-plagued Hurricanes, the Rangers would strike first.
And once again, the chemistry between the Carl Hagelin-Brad Richards-Benoit Pouliot line continues to grow. After Richards made a great pass to get the Rangers out of the tight Carolina forecheck, Pouliot and Hagelin skated their way up the ice. The result was a great backhand from the slot from Hagelin for his first goal of the season. Hagelin, who is in his second game since returning from injury, now has points in consecutive games. Pouliot, who struggled mightily in the first few games of the season, has found his game and has produced for the Rangers in the last four games.
The Hagelin goal seemingly titled the action from the Rangers end of the ice to the Hurricanes side. The Rangers started to develop some forechecking of their own and when the Hurricanes were able to carry the puck into Rangers' territory, the team did a decent job of cutting off passing lanes through the slot - keeping most of the play to the outside. It also helps when you have a resurgent Henrik Lundqvist, who in his third start since returning from injury, is looking more and more like the focused goaltender his reputation belies.
In the second period, after a series of penalties early, the Hurricanes would end up on a four-on-three power play for 15 seconds. During that time, Lundqvist came up big with two saves before the power play became a five-on-four. The Hurricanes looked out of sync during the rest of the power play and the Rangers would capitalize with the help of the man in the box at the time. Hagelin, who left the box after a hooking penalty, skated down to the Carollina end to retrieve a dumped puck. The winger would slide his second goal of the game through Peters. For Hagelin, it was his fourth career two-goal game.
Minutes later, Carolina would show some frustration. Hurricanes defenseman Ryan Murphy, in trying to cover a hard charging Derek Dorsett one on one, used a hip check to upend Dorsett, who was lucky to escape serious injury after nearly landing on his head. The low hit angered Dorsett's linemates and sent Murphy to the box for a two minute clipping penalty. During the power play, while Murphy sat, former Ranger Manny Malhotra was called for giving Michael Del Zotto a cross-check to the back, which caused Del Zotto to slide into Lundqvist and knock the net off its moorings.
The Rangers would respond on the ensuing power play with Derek Stepan finally getting his first goal of the season. According to MSG Network, after Murphy left the penalty box, he skated by the Rangers bench. When Dorsett's teammates yelled at him over the hit, Murphy laughed at them. The next time Dorsett and Murphy were on the ice, Dorsett charged after Murphy near center ice and would be called for roughing and elbowing. Despite Carolina's Jay Harrison taking a roughing penalty on the play as well, Carolina would end up with a power play. The Hurricanes would convert the man advantage into their first goal of the night as defenseman Andrej Sekera's shot from near the boards would find the net past a screened Lundqvist.
The Rangers would start the third period strong and they would get their chances, some of which require great saves from the Hurricanes' netminder Peters. But, Carolina would also show some mettle and Lundqvist would be tested as well.
Lundqvist's best save would come after Murphy faked a shot, then passed to one of one of Carolina's top scoring threats, Alexander Semin, whose quick one-timer off the pass would be turned away by the stellar Ranger goaltender.
Soon after, the Rangers would sustain pressure down on the Carolina end. A great forechecking effort by Chris Krieder keeps the puck deep in the Carolina end. Mats Zuccarello would get to the loose puck behind the net and would feed it front to a waiting Stepan, who would snap a quick shot past Peters to give the Rangers a three goal edge. Also, it is important to note, this would be the first time this season that the Rangers scored more than three goals in a game. But, the Blueshirts weren't done and neither was Derek Stepan.
Minutes later, Stepan would get his first hat trick since October 2010. As Krieder passed the puck to Zuccarello, he skated along the boards and fed it to Stepan. It seems Stepan was trying to pass the puck over to Krieder, who looked to be in a better position for a quality scoring chance, but Stepan's pass went off of Hurricane defenseman Sekera and past Peters to give Stepan his second career hat trick.
Stepan is now tied with Brad Richards for the team lead in points with 10.
In addition, Zuccarello and Chris Krieder had three assists each in the game. Both players are now riding three game point scoring streaks.
Lundqvist stopped 27 shots for the Rangers, who outshot the Hurricanes 38-28, including 15-5 in the second period. The 31-year-old is now 4-5-0 for the season and has lowered his goal against average to 2.63. He has also upped his save percentage for the season to .914. In the three starts since returning from injury, he is 2-1-0 with a shutout and has allowed only three goals - two of them on the power play.
Carolina falls to 4-7-3 and they have now lost five straight games. Peters made 33 saves in the loss and his record drops to 0-5 on the season.
Now, obviously, the Rangers should have won this game, especially given the Hurricanes' current state. But, the fact the Rangers won by such a margin tonight, won with so many contributions, and neither captain Ryan Callahan nor star winger Rick Nash were in the game says a lot about the slow transformation that is happening with this team. Head coach Alain Vigneault and his coaching staff are getting through to the players and the confidence is starting to show itself with various players. This was not a team that was built around one or two superstar skaters. It's meant to be a cohesive team on both sides of the ice. For this stretch, they've been committed to the game plan. Callahan should be back in a week or so, which should really give a boost to a team that already on the upswing. Nash might not be back for a while, which is why it is all the more important that the contributions continue to come from different players.
This Rangers win was important to build confidence, but also to build momentum as the Rangers head into two tough challenges in a row.
On Monday night, the Rangers have the chance to avenge one of their worst losses of the season. On October 10, two nights after their awful night in San Jose, they went to Anaheim. The Ducks had no mercy on the Rangers - dominating them from start to finish - defeating them 6-0. Now, the Anaheim Ducks will come to Madison Square Garden. This time, they will not be bringing future Hall of Famer Teemu Selanne, who received a dental injury after taking a high stick and may be out for a couple weeks.
After that, on Wednesday, the Rangers host the Pittsburgh Penguins, one of the top teams in the league, who currently have a record of 11-4-0. Earlier tonight, the Pens defeated the Columbus Blue Jackets 3-0.
One more thing. As the Rangers' play-by-play man Sam Rosen alluded to, defenseman Marc Staal now has the bragging rights with the Rangers beating the Hurricanes, whose roster includes his brothers Eric and Jordan. Marc is slowly regaining his game as he not only recovers from his career-threatening eye injury, but also gets used to wearing a visor for the first time in his NHL career.
If Marc Staal was healthy the last time these two teams met, it would have been the first time in NHL history that four brothers played on the ice together. On April 25, Eric and Jordan were joined by brother and teammate Jared Staal, another family forward. Callahan scored a goal in overtime as the Rangers beat the Hurricanes in that game and clinched a playoff spot. Now, with tonight's victory, the Rangers have won their ninth straight over Carolina. And this time, Marc Staal was there to be a part of it.