CHICAGO - If Wednesday night's game against the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks was a measuring stick, the Rangers came away with a yard.
The struggling Blueshirts knew that from goaltender Henrik Lundqvist on out, the compete level had to be high to have a chance for points against the Blackhawks, who had lost only twice in regulation in 23 games at the United Center. And it was.
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After the Rangers took a two-goal lead in the first period on a wrister from Brad Richards and Mats Zuccarello's wraparound, the Blackhawks tied it in the second. But the Rangers kept pushing. Carl Hagelin pounced on a rebound of Marc Staal's knuckling shot from the point that Corey Crawford couldn't hold with 5:57 left and Henrik Lundqvist made 35 saves to give the Rangers a 3-2 win.
"We went in with the mindset that we're playing one of the best teams in the league so we have to be really sharp with everything," Lundqvist said. "You can't expect everything to go your way for 60 minutes, they're going to come back at you really hard, and in the second they got some momentum but we took it back. It felt like we had some confidence."
That element was critical, because the Blackhawks came in leading the league in goals with 163, and had amassed 67 points, two behind the NHL's best team, the Anaheim Ducks. The Blackhawks had points in each of their previous 10 games, and the Rangers hadn't won here in almost four years -- a 3-2 overtime victory on Jan. 16, 2009.
So the deck was stacked against the Rangers, but as Lundqvist said: "We had a real good approach, we had real good meetings, and worked on details. The games are getting tighter and the details matter. I knew I had to be sharp or it would be a tough night."
There was concern when the Hawks responded with a power-play goal from Jonathan Toews and a shortside wrister from Brandon Bollig that Lundqvist didn't quite have the proper angle on.
"We try not to get too frustrated, we just kept grinding," Zuccarello said. "Got a lucky bounce and Hank came up big in the end."
Hagelin, who scored his 11th goal, said the win could be a tipping point for the season, which began with a 2-6 start and plenty of first-half stumbles.
The Rangers, who are 6-2-1 in their last nine, climbed into third place and a playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division. "As of late we've been playing a lot better, all four lines, PP and PK, goaltending, every aspect of our game's been better," Hagelin said.
"This is a big one for us," Lundqvist said. "The position we're in, desperate for points and wins, so it's a great feeling to be rewarded with that big goal."
In the third, when defenseman Michal Rozsival went off for delay of the game at 2:31, the Rangers had four or five excellent chances on the power play, but Crawford stopped them all and got some help when a wrister from Staal, who had two assists, beat him from the left point, but rang the far post.
Alain Vigneault would only say that this particular win, no matter how stunning, was sweet.
"All I know," he said, "is beating the Stanley Cup champs in this building is not an easy task."