With 38.5 seconds left on the clock and Jimmy Vesey’s long shot going into the net vacated by Predators goalie Juuse Saros, a relieved Henrik Lundqvist looked skyward at the scoreboard.
That fourth and final goal, which secured a 4-2 victory over the defending Western Conference champion Nashville Predators on Saturday afternoon not only snapped a five-game winless streak for the Blueshirts, but also provided a needed dose of confidence and relief.
“You can do so many good things to try to get a good feeling in here,” Lundqvist said in the Madison Square Garden locker room, which had been a zone of frustration after a 1-5-2 start and two previous losses in a shootout and overtime. “But in the end it comes down to winning games. I’d rather play bad and win than play great and lose.”
Lundqvist, who came into the matinee with a 3.15 goals-against-average and sub-par .905 save percentage, played well, and made 23 saves, including on all nine shots he faced in the final period, to preserve a 3-2 lead before the clincher, Vesey’s first goal of the young season.
“Finally, we get a good first period, a good start and sit in here and feel good about where we are in the game” said Lundqvist, recalling a litany of past games when the Blueshirts were down by a goal or two quickly. “You don’t have to go out and chase or try to force anything.”
After their best all-around first 20 minutes of the season, the Rangers (2-5-2) led 2-0 on goals from Jesper Fast and Chris Kreider, the latter on a power-play, as Lundqvist stopped nine shots and the penalty-kill — fourth-worst in the league — turned away three power plays. It was only the second time that the Blueshirts had a two-goal lead in any of their nine games; they beat Montreal, 2-0, on Oct. 8.
That two-goal lead was short-lived. Mattias Ekholm’s slap shot from between the circles zipped past Lundqvist at 1:44 of the second. But Kevin Hayes’ third goal of the season — and third in the last five games — came when he blew by defenseman Matt Irwin down the right side and lifted the puck over Saros’ glove at 12:46.
“I got some speed there and the D was kind of flatfooted,” said Hayes, whose earlier drive to the net led to Fast’s putback rebound. “It’s not often I beat guys wide.”
The Predators didn’t give in. They trimmed that second two-goal lead when Filip Forsberg tipped Roman Josi’s shot from the left boards. Lundqvist only got a piece with his glove, the puck popped behind him, and with Viktor Arvidsson swiping away, it trickled across the goal line at 15:30 of the second.
Neither team created much offense in the first two periods. The Predators had 16 shots and the Rangers — with coach Alain Vigneault again deploying 11 forwards and seven defensemen rather than the standard 12-6 — just 12. And the Rangers were outshot 9-3 in the third. “We got a lead and then maybe backed off a little more than we should have,” said coach Alain Vigneault.
With 8:46 left in regulation, Brendan Smith, after a collision, accidentally knocked his net off its moorings and Nashville, now 4-3-1, went to another man-advantage for delay-of-game. Lundqvist stopped three shots, including a one-timer by Ryan Johansen. Asked why the penalty-kill, which turned away four 5-on-4s and a 4-on-3 for 1:26, was so effective, Vigneault responded: “Good goaltending.”
The elusive victory, said Brady Skjei, gave the Rangers a chance to exhale. “It’s a combination of relief and confidence. A win and three straight games with points is something to build on,” he said.