Simply put, the Rangers (36-28-4, 76 pts) had to leave Winnipeg Friday night with two points. Luckily, they did it in impressive fashion, disposing of the Jets, 4-2, behind a Carl Hagelin hat trick. The win salvaged a disappointing three-game road trip after losses against Carolina and Minnesota, and now the Rangers return home to face the San Jose Sharks (44-17-7, 96 pts) in a late afternoon match at Madison Square Garden.
Friday’s win leap-frogged the Rangers over Columbus back into second place in the Metropolitan Division, though the Blue Jackets have two games in hand. The Philadelphia Flyers are just three points behind the Rangers and have three games in hand.
The line shuffling in Winnipeg seemed to have helped. Head coach Alain Vigneault split up the Brad Richards line and the Derick Brassard line, and those changes paid immediate dividends. Richards centered Hagelin and Benoit Pouliot, and all three found themselves on the scoreboard, with Hagelin leading the way with his three tallies. The other new trio was Brassard centering Martin St. Louis and Mats Zuccarello, and while the line didn’t pick up any points — St. Louis had an assist after serving a penalty but neither the other two linemates were on the ice — the skill was certainly there.
After removing Chris Kreider from a line with Derek Stepan and Rick Nash, Vigneault reunited the three players and it led to Stepan assisting on Kreider’s goal in the first period.
While Hagelin was the story, goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was superb in picking up win No. 301, tying him with Mike Richter for most in team history. The King, who Vigneault has already confirmed as the starter, has the opportunity to pick up No. 302 Sunday at The Garden. In five career games against San Jose, Lundqvist is 2-2 with a .905 save percentage and 2.82 goals against average.
The Rangers struggled to score during their recent trip, putting up just two goals over the first two games before the four-spot they posted last night in Manitoba. The hope for the Rangers is that offensive output could generate scoring moving forward, as the Rangers take on the Sharks (44-17-7, 95 pts) Sunday afternoon at Madison Square Garden.
The two teams haven’t met since the infamous San Jose win on Oct. 8, when the Sharks beat the Rangers, 9-2, out in California. The game was just the third of the season and obviously left a bad taste in the mouths of the Rangers, who have now waited five months for payback.
March has been very kind to the Sharks, who are currently tied in points with Anaheim for the lead in the Pacific Division. San Jose comes into Manhattan on a five-game winning streak, and are 6-0-1 this month. Dating back to last month, the Sharks are 9-1-1 in their last 11 contests.
The Sharks defeated the Islanders Friday night, 4-3, at Nassau Coliseum behind a goal and assist from Marty Havlat, and another tally from Joe Thornton. Goaltender Antti Niemi is second in the NHL with 33 wins.