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Stepan, Gaborik, Lundqvist star in shootout to top Phoenix, 2-1

Another close game. Another win.

The Rangers didn’t wait until the final second of regulation to skin the Coyotes tonight. On Dec. 17, Brad Richards scored with 0.1 left in regulation for a 3-2 win in Phoenix.

It took far longer at Madison Square Garden, but the victory was no less dramatic.

Derek Stepan scored in the sixth round of the shootout with a forehand over the glove of Mike Smith and Henrik Lundqvist stopped Shane Doan with his left pad to secure the 2-1 win, the Rangers’ fifth straight victory. With the save, Lundqvist won his seventh start in a row---a career high---and 19th game of the year.

“I watched five guys go in front of me and he (Smith) was really good at backing in,” said Stepan. “Guys were coming in with a lot of speed so I figured I’d change it up, slow down and see if anything opened up. He did an extremely good job the entire game.”

You couldn’t blame Smith, who made 31 saves, including a highlight-reel stop on Marian Gaborik’s penalty shot, which was awarded with 1:50 left in overtime when Adrian Aucoin hooked him as he closed in on a breakaway. Gaborik deked and went left, and Smith dove with stick extended to bat the low shot away.

“It was kind of frustrating when you have a wide open net and he makes a spectacular save,” said Gaborik. “I just tried to refocus. I had a feeling I was going to go in the shootout.”

He did, and redeemed himself in the third round, with the Rangers down 1-0, to keep the two points alive. And the Rangers streak is alive as well.

They are 13-3-2 at home, a league-leading 27-9-4 for the season and have points in 26 of the last 32 games. Even if the Rangers win just 21 of the remaining 42, they would reach 100 points for the first time since 2005-06 and just the second time since the 1994-94 Stanley Cup Championship season, when they compiled 112.

However, they did fumble away a third-period lead forged at 2:27 on Ruslan Fedotenko’s turnaround wrister that beat the screened Smith, who made 21 saves through two periods. Credit some furious work behind the goal line from linemates Brian Boyle and Carl Hagelin. It was Boyle’s first point in 13 games. “That was my mindset before the game---just go north,” he said.

But the rangers went south when Radim Vrbata scored his 20th at 11:37 with a snipe from the right circle on assists from former Ranger Michal Rozsival and Marc-Antoine Pouliot. Marc Staal blocked a shot but couldn’t find the puck at his feet and the Coyotes regrouped in the Blueshirts zone.

They almost coughed up the shootout opportunity as well. Both John Mitchell and Richards lost control of the puck in the first two rounds, and when Vrbata scored, the pressure was on Gaborik, who sped down ice, braked and flipped the puck stick-side and in. Adrian Aucoin hit the post in the fourth round before Lundqvist stopped Ray Whitney and Doan.

Defense was the key in the first 40 minutes, when the Coyotes had just 10 shots on Lundqvist (19 through overtime), who stayed focused in the shootout. “When they scored on the second shot, I felt we were in a tough position,” he said. “Gabby had all the pressure and he did a good job.”

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