Riding a three-goal first period, the Rangers beat the Flyers, 4-1, Sunday night at Madison Square Garden to extend their best stretch of the season to 8-2-1. They suddenly find themselves tied for second with Washington in the Metropolitan Division.
Yes, there are 35 games to play, but after the Rangers' 2-6 start and first-half stumbles, the transformation under coach Alain Vigneault and his staff appears to have been successful. The pace is up-tempo, the power play is clicking, Henrik Lundqvist has found his game and the defense is clearing the zone with confidence.
Against the Flyers (23-19-4), the spark for the Rangers (24-20-3) came early, with goals from agitator Daniel Carcillo and Rick Nash in a 28-second span 2:42 into the game. Carcillo's was a tuck-in against Ray Emery for his first goal as a Ranger; Nash scored for the fourth time in four games.
Meanwhile, Lundqvist (37 saves), who won his third straight start, was getting tested by the Flyers. He made five stops when Dan Girardi went off for interference at 6:20 and finished the first period with 17 saves and a 3-0 lead.
"The early goals really helped us, even though they had a strong first period," said Lundqvist, 5-1-1 with a .926 save percentage in his last seven games. "I got tested early, and you gain confidence when you make a couple good saves early on."
Derick Brassard's one-time laser over Emery's glove -- on a pass from a falling Mats Zuccarello, who swept the puck to the left circle for the blast -- provided the three-goal cushion at 9:24.
Brassard had been effective on the power play but not at even strength, and Vigneault called it "one of his better efforts five-on-five as far as generating quality chances. Hopefully it's a step in the right direction."
Before the game, Vigneault said, "I expect more from him five-on-five as far as generating offensive opportunities and being very responsible defensively. For some reason, on the power play, I don't know if it's the extra room, the extra time, he has been, I wouldn't say the quarterback, but he's moving the puck and finding the open people."
Chris Kreider, who set up Nash's goal, gave the Rangers a 4-0 lead, breaking the Flyers' streak of killing 26 straight penalties. Brad Richards, who leads the team with 34 points, kept the puck in at the blue line, and Kreider waltzed in from the left corner, stickhandled around the crease and buried a backhander for his team-leading 12th goal at 13:18 of the second.
The Rangers, who had a bucketful of chances and could have had six goals, have scored at least one power-play goal in five straight games. Said Brassard, "Right now, we're scoring goals. We've just got to keep it up. Arnie [associate coach Scott Arniel] has been preparing us really well. We're practicing every day, and sometimes when we get a little bit lazy, he gets us back on track with video. We're attacking, and even if we don't score, we keep pushing."
Lundqvist finally allowed a goal at 6:49 of the third on a power play, as Mark Streit one-timed a shot from the point and beat the screened goalie.
Vigneault said he can't attribute the hot streak to "one specific thing. The way to move forward in the NHL is to try to get better, and that's what we are trying to do on a daily basis."