Thirty-five games remain in the regular season, but the Rangers glide into the All-Star break sitting pretty: With 66 points after a 3-0 shutout of the Winnipeg Jets tonight, they are alone atop the Eastern Conference.
“We have to try and stay there and create some separation between the teams below us,” said Dan Girardi, one of three players representing the Rangers at the All-Star festivities in Ottawa. “We can’t be satisfied with a good first half and come back next Tuesday and just go through the motions.”
Last night’s game had all the elements of a trap: Playing after an emotional win in Boston, with a five-day hiatus ahead and against a team coming off a loss on Monday.
“We talked about not having a letdown,” said captain Ryan Callahan, whose 17th goal, a front-porch putback of a rebound at 4:05 of the first period set the tone. “It just shows the maturity of the team. We didn’t let us focus on the break or worry about what was ahead of us. These two points are just as important as they were against Boston.”
With the victory that raised their home record to 15-5-2, the Rangers capped a remarkable run. They haven’t been in first place this late since the 1995-96 season and have recorded a point in 30 of their last 39 games. That’s consistency.
Henrik Lundqvist, playing because Martin Biron, who was 2-0 against the Jets, had the flu, turned aside 22 shots for his fifth shutout. Some of his best work came in the third period with the Rangers ahead 2-0 on John Mitchell’s goal. At 2:14, Lundqvist, who was selected as an All-Star, made an unbelievable left pad save on Tanner Glass to maintain the two-goal lead. After Marian Gaborik was robbed by Ondrej Pavelec (28 saves), who also was very sharp, Lundqvist came right back to stone Bryan Little off a turnover in front.
The 29-year-old Swedish goalkeeper has allowed one goal or less in nine of his last 16 games and the chants of “Hen-rik” poured down at the Garden at the end. It was Lundqvist’s 22nd win and 40th career shutout, tying him for second on the team’s all-time list.
“I’ve watched him from afar. I knew he was a great goalie,” said Brad Richards, who had gone seven games without a goal but made it 3-0 at 16:22 of the third after a takeaway by Callahan. “But seeing him every night, it’s pretty nice to know if you’re going to have a breakdown there’s a good chance he’s going to save it.”
Callahan’s two points gave him 36, second only to Gaborik’s 39. He led all forwards in time on ice at 20:31. “Cally carried us, he was just a horse,” said Brian Boyle.
Imagine if the Rangers had any power play to speak of. They were 0-for-4 last night and 1-for-21 in the last nine games. It is the main glaring weakness on a team that plays hard virtually every night and has superb goaltending and penalty-killing.
“I think it’s a good time for a break,” said coach John Tortorella. “I’m happy with the group; I hope they have a good break and we get right back at it…You look at the standings, there are a lot of teams winning, and if you don’t stay on top of yourself…there will be some struggles.”