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The Improbable Wrap: With 5-0 win, Rangers closing in on playoffs


              Tampa in the rear-view mirror. On to Fort Lauderdale tonight, headed through Alligator Alley for the second leg of this two-game trip which has started off promising for your Blueshirts....


                  The two points, so critical in the playoff race, were right there, hanging like ripe fruit. The Rangers wasted no time in chopping down the branch.
                    Brandon Prust, Marc Staal, Vinny Prospal and Brandon Dubinsky---assisted by the Lightning defense and goaltender Mike Smith---scored in the first 14:55 of the first period last night as the surging Blueshirts extended their run to 4-0-1 with a 5-0 win and climbed into ninth place with five games to play.
                    In a scenario that many critics deemed improbable two weeks ago, the Rangers, with 80 points, are now just two points behind the eighth-place Bruins and are tied in wins. The Rangers also hold the head-to-head tiebreaker, having won three of the four games with Boston this season. They also are two points behind the seventh-place Flyers, who lost 1-0 to Montreal, and have a game in hand.
                    “When we went to bed Thursday night, you’re thinking, there’s a chance, but without help and without us winning, there’s no chance,” said Jody Shelley. “Before last night, we were in the playoff race. Now we’re in the hunt. Now it’s for real.”  
                    The shutout, which was the fourth of the season for Henrik Lundqvist, who made 30 saves, provided the Rangers with nine of a possible ten points in the last five games. The fifth stop on a six-game road trip is tonight in Sunrise against the Panthers and the Rangers are 7-2-2 in the second game of back-to-backs this season.
                   “What I like about our attitude is that nobody’s excited,” said Lundqvist when told that their fate was in their hands. “We still have a ways to go. But we’re closer.”  
                    The Rangers had the territorial edge in the first and Smith and his defense were as wobbly as a kid on his first training-wheels ride.  Vladimir Mihalik, without a stick, raced from the boards to retaliate for Shelley’s hit and chased him to the crease, allowing Prust to score on the first shot of the game. Staal’s shot from the left side eluded Smith on the far side at 3:34, just 25 seconds after Prust's tally. Prospal threw one in front off Mihalik's skate with 8:37 left. Smith stopped Dubinsky's power-play shot, but the rebound bounced off Kurtis Foster's skate and over the line. Prospal, who has three goals against his former team this season, and Dubinsky, who has three goals in the last five games, each have 19 goals. “You create your own luck and your own rewards by showing up and working hard,” said Dubinsky.
                   Antero Niittymaki started the second period in goal for the Lightning, who had a chance to recover when Dubinsky’s delay of game, coupled with Shelley’s penalty, gave the Lightning a 5 on 3 for 1:20 early in the second. But the Rangers killed their 15th power play in the last 16.
                 “We got fortunate tonight in the first period,” said coach John Tortorella. “I thought in the second period we got a little sloppy. What if they score two on the 5 on 3? We did a good job taking away their options. Those are very important situations.”   
                 Aaron Voros capped the scoring when Niittymaki misplayed the puck behind the net and his pass in front banked off the goaltender at 13:50 of the third. It was Voros' first goal since Jan. 19 and his second of the season. His other goal? Also against Tampa. That's the kind of night it was for the Rangers.



                        In early March, when Jody Shelley first arrived in New York from San Jose, the Rangers were perhaps trying to finesse the game too much.

                         “We’re starting to figure out that it’s got to be a simpler game,” said Shelley, whose 10:34 on ice was his highest as a Ranger and whose hit on defenseman Vladimir Mihalik freed the puck that led to Brandon Prust’s opening goal.

                     “In a few of those losses, we were making complicated plays, cross-ice passes, drop passes at the blue line. When you do that, you’re feeding the transition game and you’re chasing guys all night. I think we’ve made some technical changes and changed the mentality and that’s paid off. We chip it in, chip it out. We can still get better at it. You talk about bounces, but the bounces come when you play in the offensive zone.”




                         Marc Staal and Dan Girardi limited Marty St. Louis (4) and Steven Stamkos (3) to seven shots. St. Louis leads the NHL with power-play assists. Stamkos is tied for 2nd in the NHL with 46 goals. St. Louis is such a great passer, which is why we wanted to deny him time and space,” said Staal, whose goal made him 2-3-5 in four games against Tampa... Steve Downie, the other wing on that potent line, played just 6:56 and didn’t return after injuring his shoulder in a check on Dan Girardi.



                           Two saves that made a difference: Lundqvist’s left pad stop on Brandon Bochenski from dead red in front with 7:25 left in the second, and blocking St. Louis’ shorthanded breakaway with 2:25 left in the second.




                             The Blueshirts are 19-15-4 on the road this year and 3-0-1 on this six-game trip… Lundqvist is 13-5-2 in his career against the Lightning… Anders Eriksson’s assist on Dubinsky’s goal was his first point as a Ranger…Rarity: All the Rangers were at least plus-1; Del Zotto and Rozsival were plus-2…Marian Gaborik has eight points (4-4) in the last seven games… Gaborik’s assist tied his career high of 41…Michael Del Zotto has seven points in the last six….







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