Sometimes, when there really isn’t much at stake, it can be hard for a team to get up for a game. And judging by the way the Rangers played on the road during the week, it sure looked as if they’ve known for a while that the playoffs are all but out of reach and were having trouble getting pumped up.
Coach David Quinn talked about how the team’s play had slipped, about how the Rangers weren’t as dialed in against Dallas and Detroit as they had been the week before. Those had been tight games that resulted in overtime or shootout losses against top teams Washington and Tampa Bay.
But on Saturday night, the Rangers managed to overcome a sluggish start to beat the Devils, 4-2, at the Garden. They scored the last four goals, with Ryan Strome getting the first one and the last one (empty net to ice it).
The victory ended a six-game losing streak and improved the Rangers to 28-28-12.
“We’ve got 14 games to go, and you can feel it in that locker room: Winning feels way better than losing,’’ Quinn said. “Our situation is what it is, but we want to win hockey games, and I thought over the last two games, it slipped a little bit. I thought we got back to it tonight.”
In between the goals by Strome were goals by Libor Hajek, the 21-year-old rookie defenseman called up from AHL Hartford five games ago, and Vladislav Namestnikov.
Hajek’s first NHL goal tied the score at 2 early in the third period. Namestnikov’s 10th goal, at 13:25, ended up being the game-winner.
But all was not great news for the Rangers. Hajek left the game midway through the third period after taking a hit from the Devils’ Blake Coleman that had him favoring his left shoulder. Quinn said it appeared as though he suffered a separated shoulder.
Defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who was scratched in Thursday’s 3-2 shootout loss in Detroit, returned to the lineup, taking the place of Marc Staal, who missed a game for the first time this season while getting over the flu.
Shattenkirk helped get the Rangers on the board late in the second period when he fired a shot that was deflected in by Strome. Shattenkirk played 18:59 and was a plus-1 with the one assist.
Shattenkirk, Chris Kreider, Brady Skjei, Mika Zibanejad and some of the other veterans drew praise afterward from Quinn.
Quinn said before the game that he had talked to Shattenkirk about the need to step up his game.
“He and I had had conversations leading up to [his being scratched], so he wasn’t surprised,’’ Quinn said. “And we had a long talk, not only about right now but what he’s going to have to continue to do . . . in his career, as most guys who hit 30 have to do, especially in this NHL. The NHL that these guys are playing in now isn’t the NHL that it was two years ago. He’s fully understanding of that.’’
Searching for a spark, Quinn juggled his forward lines, dropping Kreider to the fourth line. By late in the second period, he moved him up to the second line, with Strome and Jesper Fast. Kreider was a physical force all night and made a nice play to set up Hajek’s goal.