All day yesterday, the conversation in the Rangers' locker room underscored the urgency, the desperation.
"We talked about it being the biggest game so far this year," Henrik Lundqvist said.
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His struggling team spoke again after the second period at Madison Square Garden, with the Winnipeg Jets and Rangers tied at 2 in what amounted to a must-have game for the Blueshirts, who were shut out in their previous two games.
"We said that it was the biggest period so far," Lundqvist said, "and it gives us confidence when you go out and execute like we did in the third."
In that defining period, Derek Stepan scored his second goal of the game on a sharp-angle rebound of Anton Stralman's point shot at 5:46 and linemate Rick Nash put it away at 13:07 with a right-dot wrister off the rush. The 4-2 victory kept the Rangers (17-15-3) in a tie with the Islanders for eighth in the East and within two points of the seventh-place Devils, who lost to the Islanders, 3-1.
Lundqvist, who made 26 saves, moved into a tie for second place on the Rangers' all-time wins list with Eddie Giacomin with 267. Mike Richter is first with 301.
The Rangers don't have time to savor the victory, though; they face the Penguins, the top team in the East, tomorrow and Friday. "It will mean nothing if we can't follow it up with a big effort," Dan Girardi said.
The line of Stepan, Nash and Ryan Callahan excelled, totaling four goals and nine points. Stepan scored 19 seconds into the game to end the Rangers' drought of 128:06 when he buried his 11th of the season on a feed from Callahan, who had three assists and the tying goal. It was only the 13th time in 35 games that the Rangers had scored first. But the lead lasted only 56 seconds.
Nik Antropov, left alone by defensemen Steve Eminger and Roman Hamrlik, had time to pick a spot and deposit Kyle Wellwood's pass past Lundqvist at 1:15. But Stepan then saved a goal with a right-knee stop on Wellwood at the left post at 8:05 after Lundqvist slid out of the crease while making a save.
With the Rangers trailing 2-1 going into the second, the complexion of the game changed, thanks to Callahan. Mats Zuccarello was off for high sticking at 1:02 and Girardi tripped Bryan Little to give the Jets a five-on-three for 39 seconds.
But Callahan gloved down Tobias Enstrom's clearing attempt, and with Zuccarello out of the penalty box, they raced down on a two-on-one. Callahan deked around Enstrom and Ondrej Pavelec (31 saves) and backhanded in the tying goal at 3:11. It was Callahan's 10th, and the fourth shorthander for the Rangers.
"When things aren't going well and you're struggling, you look for leadership, and the captain stepped up with a huge play," Nash said.
"It's big, not only to tie the game but for me personally," Callahan said. "I've been struggling to put the puck in the net. Getting that one, then we started to get going."
Lundqvist said the 5-for-5 penalty kill "was the key and the second goal turned around the whole game."
John Tortorella called it a step in the right direction. "When something doesn't go right for them, we lose some of that quick resiliency,'' he said. "Maybe tonight was a good lesson for us."