After an inspired road trip last week in which the Rangers won all three games, including a pair of important divisional contests, they returned home Monday night and rallied for a dramatic 4-3 overtime victory over the Phoenix Coyotes on Ryan McDonagh's goal 1:56 into the extra period.
The victory was the fourth in a row for the Rangers, who moved past the Philadelphia Flyers and into sole possession of second place in the Metropolitan Division. Those two clubs will hook up Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden, with New York holding a one-point lead over Philadelphia.
Trailing 3-2 with under four minutes to play in regulation, the Rangers pulled even on Dan Girardi's fifth goal of the season at 16:32; and then won it in overtime when McDonagh potted the rebound of Girardi's slap shot for his 13th goal, setting off a wild on-ice celebration by the Blueshirts. McDonagh's goal provided the Rangers their only lead the entire game, and was his third game-winner this season.
"We found a way tonight," head coach Alain Vigneault said postgame. "We weren't as high emotionally as we usually are, and physically it took us a while to get going, but we found a way. It says a lot about our group."
McDonagh finished with three points in the game (1-2-3)--including the 100th of his NHL career, while Girardi (1-1-2), Carl Hagelin (0-2-2) and Benoit Pouliot (0-2-2) all contributed a pair.
Henrik Lundqvist, who was feted before the game by the Rangers organization for establishing two franchise records in the past week, stopped 18 of 21 shots to earn his 29th win of the season.
"It was a roller coaster," an emotionally-drained Lundqvist said in the Rangers dressing room. "Tonight was a game that we didn't start off great, but we found a way to get back in the game, and when it mattered most, guys stepped up big time."
Mike Smith was sharp between the pipes for the Coyotes, stopping 25 of 27 shots, until he was knocked out of the game with an apparent lower body injury with 7:34 to play in the third period. New York's Derick Brassard fell back on top of Smith by his crease and the 'Yotes netminder writhed in pain immediately afterwards. Smith was helped off the ice and to the Coyotes dressing room, and was replaced by Thomas Greiss in goal.
Four minutes later, after having successfully killed off a Phoenix power play, the Rangers produced their first two shots against Greiss, and the second found the back of net, tying the game at three apiece. Stationed down low, Girardi tipped McDonagh's slap shot past Greiss, his fifth goal of the season pulling the home team even with 3:28 remaining in regulation.
"That may have been the first one," a smiling Girardi responded when asked how many goals he has scored on deflections in front of the net. "It was just one of those plays where I'm there once or twice a game just trying to get in and out, and luckily Mac just shot it off my stick as I was standing by the side of the net and it went in."
The game-winning goal came about after some terrific work deep in the offensive zone by Brad Richards and Hagelin. After their hard work, Hagelin fed the puck back to Girardi who hammered a low hard shot on goal that was stopped by Greiss' right pad. McDonagh was right there just outside the blue paint to slip the disc into the back of the cage for the overtime winner.
"It feels great to have a tough start like we did, but to battle back..it really showed our character," explained Girardi, who played 28:17 and finished with a +3. "We didn't panic despite being down early. The crowd wasn't happy with us, and we weren't happy with ourselves, but we showed a lot of character, especially this time of year when we need every point we can get."
The game was preceded by an on-ice ceremony to commemorate Lundqvist becoming the franchise's all-time leader in both wins and shutouts this past week. Lundqvist was joined on the ice by his wife and daughter, his parents who flew in from Sweden, and legendary Ranger goaltenders Mike Richter and Ed Giacomin--whose No. 35 and No. 1, respectively, hang from the rafters at The Garden.
After a video retrospective of his career played on Gardenvision, Lundqvist received a special framed photo montage from children in the Garden of Dreams Foundation, a special goalie mask celebrating victory number 302 which vaulted Henrik past Richter as the team's wins leader, and a Gibson Les Paul blue guitar which was presented to him by the team's three alternate captains--Richards, Girardi, and Marc Staal.
"The way it started with the ceremony, was just a memory for life," stated Lundqvist. "To see my parents walking out there, my family, my wife, my kid, it was a very special moment in my career, I must say."
Once the pre-game festivities were over it was time to play hockey, except that the Rangers were not nearly as ready for the game to start as the visitors were. Phoenix scored twice in the first eight minutes 22 seconds--on only five shots--to grab a 2-0 lead against a Rangers team that seemed to be skating in place and not yet ready to compete.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson scored a power play goal off the rush at 4:40 and former Ranger Jeff Halpern made it 2-0 at 8:22 with a one-timer from the slot, as the Rangers were beaten cleanly to the prime scoring areas on both Coyotes goals.
To their credit the Rangers raised their energy level and played a much stronger second period, though they were still trailing, 3-2, heading into the second intermission. Richards scored his first goal in 11 games, deflecting a Hagelin shot past Smith 6:10 into the middle stanza, to start the Blueshirt comeback. Then after a strong penalty kill the Rangers tied the game at 10:53 when Brassard picked up the rebound of his own blocked shot and snapped one home from right wing, scoring his 17th goal and equaling his single-season career-high. He now has four goals in the past four games.
"You don't want to start out that way in your own building, but we came into the locker room and just stayed positive and talked about the little plays that would get us back into the game," explained McDonagh, who also assisted on Brassard's goal and played a team-high 29:16.
The way the Rangers had taken control of the game, it seemed that at worst they would be tied after 40 minutes of play. However with 3:09 to play in the second period a Kyle Chipchura centering pass for Antoine Vermette deflected off the stick of a backchecking Crhis Kreider and between Lundqvist's pads to put Phoenix back in front, 3-2.
New York, which received an outstanding night from its fourth line of Brian Boyle-Dominic Moore-and Derek Dorsett, was forced to compensate for the fact that two of its top players were slowed by the flu. In fact it was not known until pre-game warmups whether or not Derek Stepan and/or Marty St. Louis would be able to play after both missed the morning skate because of illness.
Both did play Monday night, though both were clearly compromised. Stepan played just seven minutes four seconds the entire game and lost all nine faceoffs he took. St. Louis played 11:04 and managed one shot on goal.
"I made a mistake tonight, I should not have played Step and Marty," offered Vigneault postgame. "I should have taken that out of their hands. I saw them at 4:00 and they didn't look good, but both said they wanted to play. At the end of the day I have to be better and take that (decision) out of their hands because they had no energy."
As for his fourth line, Vigneault was full of praise, saying, "Our fourth line was our best line tonight. Those guys did a real good job of playing the right way, and providing the forechecking we needed."
Vigneault also praised Richards after the game, saying it was one of his best games of the season. Richards logged 21:34, scored a goal, and was terrific at both ends of the ice.