One night after one of their most important and emotional victories of the season, the Rangers played a stingy defensive game and helped Henrik Lundqvist earn his franchise-record 50th regular season shutout in a 2-0 road victory over the New Jersey Devils at The Prudential Center on Saturday night.
The Rangers now have 82 points on the season, and with ten games to play, have a four point lead over Columbus for third place in the Metropolitan Division. The win was New York's third in a row, and fourth in its last five games--with all four victories coming on the road. The Rangers now lead the entire National Hockey League with 23 road wins on the season.
"It's just a great feeling," Lundqvist said in the postgame dressing room. "This game was so important, and the points are important. We came out playing a smart road game, realizing we put in a big effort (Friday) night. Whatever we did and felt going into (Friday's game in Columbus) we needed to have the same energy and same mindset going into this one. It doesn't change. We're still in the same position fighting for our (playoff) lives here. We have to have the mindset that every point could be the difference, so this was a big win."
The shutout moved Lundqvist past Ed Giacomin into sole possession of the Rangers' all-time lead and was the eighth of his career against the Devils. Lundqvist, who finished with 21 saves, is now tied for second in the NHL this season with five shutouts, one behind Boston's Tuukka Rask.
Lundqvist made a game-saving stop along the goal line with 38.9 seconds remaining in the third period to preserve both the win and the shutout. With New York leading 1-0 and on the power play, the Devils pulled goaltender Martin Brodeur and pressed a tired Rangers team in front of Lundqvist, but he sprawled on the ice to make one, and quite possibly two, saves before falling backwards with the puck underneath him.
"I knew where (the puck) was, and they were just hacking and whacking so you never know where it's going to end up," explained Lundqvist of the last-minute save. "It was just a big relief."
Rick Nash snapped a scoreless tie midway through the game by scoring his team-leading 23rd goal at 10:33 of the second period. After Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider just missed on a quick passing play in front of the Devils net the puck came right to Nash who was stationed along the left-wing wall. Without hesitation Nash wristed the puck past Brodeur who was still unsettled after the previous scramble.
The goal was Nash's third in the past three games; and though he was not nearly as forceful Saturday as he was in his return to Columbus 24 hours prior, he played another strong game and was in the middle of many of the Rangers' best scoring chances. Nash tied for the team lead with four shots on goal.
Stepan put the game away by scoring an empty-net goal with just 7.8 seconds left on the clock. He now has scored goals in three straight games, and has 15 on the season. Since returning from the Olympics, Stepan has notched points in 11 of 13 games, totaling 15 points in that span, including his pair of points (goal, assist) Saturday night in New Jersey.
"It was a grinding type game by both teams," stated Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault. "We sort of took a page out of their book grinding that game down. I thought we did a pretty good job."
Just three minutes before Nash's goal, Brodeur made his best save of the night, lunging with his left pad to rob Mats Zuccarello, who was set up off the rush with a slick feed from Marty St. Louis. While not tested with many Grade A scoring chances, Brodeur still played a solid game, one that was in stark contrast to the last time he faced the Rangers outdoors two months ago at Yankee Stadium and allowed six goals on 21 shots before being pulled in favor of Cory Schneider.
Lundqvist only faced five shots in the first period and six more in the second as the Rangers bottled the Devils up and blocked a bunch of New Jersey shots and passes. In fact he did not face a single shot for nearly the entire first half of the first period, but Lundqvist came up big when he made a scintillating right pad save to deny Jaromir Jagr's breakaway attempt on New Jersey first shot 9:48 into the game.
"He has such a long reach, so when he went to his right I just tried to go with him with my pad, and when he went back I just tried to stretch as much as I could," Lundqvist said of the save. "In the first period I didn't face that many shots so obviously to get a start like that was pretty important for me."
The Rangers were forced to make a pair of changes to their lineup Saturday. Defenseman John Moore was scratched because he was suffering "concussion symptoms", according to Vigneault. Moore was drilled into the boards Friday by Columbus forward Blake Comeau, and could not finish the 3-1 win over the Blue Jackets. Vigneault said that Moore is still being evaluated by team doctors.
Raphael Diaz took Moore's spot in the lineup Saturday and paired alongside Kevin Klein--with Klein shifting to the left side so that Diaz could play the right. It was Diaz's Ranger debut as he had been a healthy scratch in nine straight games since being acquired from Vancouver at the NHL's trade deadline.
"I liked his first game," Vigneault said of Diaz, who was a +1 over 16:20 worth of ice-time. "Our entire blue line was very good tonight."
Added Diaz, who was credited with two blocked shots on the defensive side and who moved the puck quickly and smartly on the power play, "I tried to find my rhythm right away, first shift, and that was really important for me. The whole team played really well defensively, and then Hank made some huge stops."
Also Derek Dorsett came down with a stomach flu and was scratched in favor of Daniel Carcillo.
After a well-earned day of rest Sunday, the Rangers return to battle Monday at Madison Square Garden when they host the Phoenix Coyotes.