Martin Biron falls to the ice after making a first...

Martin Biron falls to the ice after making a first period save. (March 13, 2012) Credit: David Pokress

Just 50 games into his NHL career, Carl Hagelin may have found a niche on a line with two NHL stars.

Hagelin scored a critical wraparound goal with seven minutes left in the third period and made two assists for a career-high three points to help put away the Carolina Hurricanes, 4-2, Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden.

The victory provided the Eastern Conference-leading Rangers with a six-point cushion over the hard-charging Pittsburgh Penguins, who storm into the Garden with Sidney Crosby back in the lineup Thursday.

Hagelin's three points were matched by his linemates: Brad Richards, with two goals for the second consecutive game, and Marian Gaborik, with a goal and two assists, as the trio dominated the ice from start to finish.

It's just the third game together for the trio, which looked as if it had been a unit all season. They had 15 of the 28 Rangers shots on Cam Ward, missed the net six times and had four attempts blocked.

"He's [Richards] got a lot of confidence right now," said Gaborik, who scored his 34th goal and fifth in eight games at 3:02 of the first period to take some pressure off Martin Biron (27 saves), who found out he was subbing for the flu-ridden Henrik Lundqvist at about 1:30 p.m. "He knows how to slow the game down and find me or Hags. We read off each other . . . Richie can feed us. We just get on our horse, if the pass is not perfect, we can still hunt it down and have a good forecheck."

The biggest beneficiary was Biron, who last played five days ago and allowed a goal on the Senators' first shot, a Zach Smith slapper, in a 4-1 loss in Ottawa. He had lost three of his last four starts, with the win coming against Carolina, 3-2, on March 1.

The Rangers built a 3-0 lead as Richards scored twice in the second period, his fourth and fifth goals in three games. But the Canes responded twice in 32 seconds to eliminate some of the breathing room.

It took a curl from behind the net by Hagelin, who reached around the right post and Ward to restore a two-goal lead in the third period.

"It's about getting on pucks and creating a lot of turnovers," said Hagelin, who has 13 goals and 20 assists. "Anytime you play for awhile, you know their tendencies . . . I know if Gab has it one corner, he might throw it to the other . . . Richie's been on me a lot -- he's always open, according to him -- but I like when someone's on me."

In the second, three minutes after Richards' wrister zipped over Ward's shoulder at 10:12, he patiently glided from the lower right circle into the slot, after a beautiful behind the net pass from Hagelin. He made Ward slide and ripped it high.

A few weeks ago, Hagelin might not have tried that pass. "He has more confidence," Richards said. "He's making more plays and that helps me."

And the Rangers. With 13 games remaining, the Blueshirts (44-18-7) have 95 points; they compiled 93 all of last season.

Notes & quotes: Ryan Callahan (foot) sat out his second straight and fifth in the last eight, along with Michael Del Zotto (hip), who missed his third straight.

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