The Rangers had been missing something, both in the games before the three-day holiday break and for the first period against Ottawa at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday.
The result? A stirring 4-3 comeback win over the Senators in a game where they were down by two goals twice, in a game that may have erased some doubts.
“It might be a game where you look back in a couple weeks, a month or two and say this was a pivotal game for us,” said Jimmy Vesey, who battled Mark Stone in his first NHL fight in the third period. “Every game is different, but we were sticking up for each other.”
Down 3-2 in the second period, the smallest Ranger led the charge. After Ottawa tough guy Chris Neil rode Brady Skjei into the boards head first at 11:31, Mats Zuccarello stormed over and grappled with Neil, followed immediately by a contingent of Blueshirts.
“Obviously, he’s not a fighter, but taking on Neil does not go unnoticed by me or the bench,” said Skjei. “It definitely created a spark.”
The Rangers killed the ensuing power play, Derek Stepan scored his second of the night just over three minutes later on a power-play to knot the score at 3, and defenseman Nick Holden battled at the left post to slide the puck under Mike Condon at 6:31 of the third period, to give the Rangers their first lead of the night, 4-3. It was also the second for Holden, whose bad-angle wrister from the right side banged off Condon and trimmed the lead to 2-1 at 11:37 of the first.
“Getting the win the way we did means more than scoring two goals” said Holden. “I was just happy how the team responded. We started to play with more emotion. After scrums and whistles, when everyone is standing together, it helps.”
The Blueshirts, who had allowed 14 goals in two losses before the break, fell behind on the first two shots. Antti Raanta’s forehand clear from behind the net was knocked down at the boards by Jean-Gabriel Pageau, and when the puck got to the blueline, Mark Borowiecki’s wrister went past multiple players and through Raanta at 2:02. Just 1:08 later, Erik Karlsson’s shot was blocked by Dan Girardi but the rebound went to Zack Smith who went untouched across the slot to beat Raanta stickside.
“That’s when the fans gave me a wakeup call,” said Raanta, who played because Henrik Lundqvist was sidelined with the flu. “The guys did a great job in the last two periods to bail me out.”
Down 3-1 at the first intermission on Cody Ceci’s shot, and with just seven shots, Stepan scored at 2:45 and Raanta, who finished with 33 saves, began to stiffen. He absolutely robbed Ceci point blank with his right pad at 8:03 to keep the deficit at one and fought off shots on two consecutive power plays starting at the 10-minute mark of the third. Holden also saved a last-minute goal with a deflection in the final minute.
“Step took charge,” said Marc Staal, who drew a roughing call when he shoved Dion Phaneuf, who was poking away at Raanta, at 12:47 of the second. “He was vocal when we were down, scores two big goals and did a great of leading us.”
Said Stepan: “It’s important to have good chatter on the bench and we had none of it, no emotion. This is the way we need to play. If you don’t have that emotion and that passion, you’re going to have a tough time winning in this league. For two games in a row, we didn’t have it.”