Did the All-Star hiatus wreck the Rangers' momentum?
In their first game back at the Garden since a 4-1-1 run leading up to the break, the Rangers jumped to a two-goal first-period lead over the Carolina Hurricanes last night and then seemed to secure a win when Brandon Dubinsky's score gave them another two-goal cushion at 12:10 of the third.
But these are the 2008-09 Rangers, a team contending for the Atlantic Division lead but a club that never makes it easy on themselves -- or their fans.
Twenty-five seconds after Dubinsky's apparent clincher on a give-and-go from Nik Zherdev, the Hurricanes closed the deficit to one when Tuomo Ruutu's snap shot zipped past backup goaltender Steve Valiquette. The crowd that had sighed with relief went back to holding its collective breath.
With the Hurricanes pressing, Valiquette got his right pad on a deflection off defenseman Wade Redden's boot in the crease with nine seconds left, preserving a 3-2 victory.
"We really struggled with just getting out of the zone," said Valiquette, who had 33 saves and lifted his record to 5-3-1 and 2-0 at the Garden. "We were hemmed in. We had time to get out and failed to make passes. There were a lot of problems. It definitely wasn't pretty. I'm not going to say it was a well-played third period, but coming out of the break, a win's a win. It doesn't have to be a perfect hockey game."
The closest that the Rangers came to perfect may have been in the first period.
Forechecking with fervor and displaying little rustiness after the layoff, the Rangers scored twice and killed two penalties. As Lauri Korpikoski forced Eric Staal into a mid-ice turnover, defenseman Dennis Seidenberg fell and Markus Naslund scooped up the puck and raced down the left side. Naslund dished to Scott Gomez for a shot that Carolina goaltender Cam Ward stopped but couldn't control. As Ward scrambled back to the center of the crease, Korpikoski saw the partially empty cage and shuffleboarded it between Ward's open pads for his third goal of the season at 4:21.
Then Naslund stickhandled by two Hurricanes and fed the puck in the right circle to Gomez, who rifled a top-shelf shot at 10:03. It was his 10th goal -- and prettiest -- of the season.
"Scotty's really come on of late," said Naslund, "and it's great to see that he gets rewarded, too. It's a matter of finding the right chemistry on the line."
Gomez has two goals and two assists in the last two games, and Korpikoski, the Finnish rookie and third man on that line, has four points in his last five games.
Valiquette, aided by favorable bounces off the iron in the first and second, surrendered Ryan Bayda's goal that halved the lead at 13:04. The teams then were scoreless through the second period and more than half of the third before Dubinsky's eighth of the season and third in his last six games. He also won 13 of 15 faceoffs.
"Some days you feel like you can't win one," he said. "You're bearing down and holding the stick hard and other days you feel like you can't lose one. It was one of those days tonight."
In what promises to be a challenging playoff run, the Rangers, who trail division-leading New Jersey by a point, will need more nights like this.
"We looked at the schedule and we'd like to get to 100 points," said Valiquette, who will be on the bench tonight when Henrik Lundqvist returns to face Pittsburgh. "And if we get to 104, 105, we figure we should be able to take the division or get ourselves home-ice advantage. We really want to be in that position this year; home ice, that's really going to make a big difference. We realize how important it is to play well right now. Our urgency is there."