The desperate Rangers, who had garnered just two points in the last eight games, came through big time against a Devils team that had added Ilya Kovalchuk two days ago and Patrik Elias (concussion) last night.
The 3-1 win gave the Rangers 59 points and a toe-hold on ninth place, just three points out of sixth on the jammed Lower East Side. Seven teams are separated by five points in the hunt for the last three playoff spots.
Henrik Lundqvist was spectacular. Martin Brodeur, not so much.
In the first rematch since the two elite goaltenders battled on Jan. 12, when the duo faced 96 shots and the Devils won 1-0 in a shootout, Lundqvist made 41 saves as the Rangers scored three times in 2:39 of the second period and edged New Jersey 3-1 at Madison Square Garden last night.
Lundqvist, who had lost six straight starts and allowed six goals against the Capitals on Thursday, snagged a half-dozen shots with his glove, which had been vulnerable in recent weeks.
“I tried to correct my stance a little bit. Sometimes when you try too hard (to see the puck), you get lower,” said Lundqvist. “Sometimes it’s better to relax a little bit and get upright, it makes a difference.”He wasn’t upright for one of his more amazing ones. With 12:55 left in the third, on the seat of his pants, he snatched a wrister on a rebound from Mike Mottau, who was six feet away.
“The last two weeks I’ve been working hard and knew I had to play better,’’ Lundqvist said. “It was a good game for me today, a lot of action. We needed to get a win at home, this is a big one for us.”
Whenever possible, the Rangers (26-26-7) bumped and banged the newest Devil, Kovalchuk, who nonetheless had a game-high eight shots, and Ryan Callahan shouldered him off the puck at a critical time.
Callahan spun around for a long, high shot that flew over Brodeur’s shoulder at 8:16 of the second period, just 66 seconds after Marian Gaborik scored his 35th of the season to give the Rangers a 2-0 lead. “I knew there were people in front so I just shot it high glove side,” said Callahan. The “Maarrrr-ty” jeers, which had rolled down from the upper reaches of the Garden after Callahan’s tally, increased in volume.
Gaborik’s tap-in into an open net from the crease off snappy passes from first, Michael Del Zotto, and then Callahan, came with Rob Niedermayer in the box for hooking. It was his sixth goal in five games and the Rangers’ fifth score with the man-advantage in two games, after not cashing in for the prior seven games.
“It’s great to start and get a lead, you play better with a lead,” said Gaborik, and we added a couple quick goals and hung in there. Hank was outstanding in the net.”
Chris Drury made it 3-0 at 9:59 of the second after Matt Gilroy blocked a shot in the Rangers zone and followed up, as the Rangers had three goals on 12 shots against Brodeur, who finished with 22 saves. Brandon Prust, who squared off twice with Andrew Peters in the first period, registered his first assist as a Ranger on Drury’s ninth of the season.
Elias, in his first game back after sustaining a concussion 11 games ago, played on a line with Kovalchuk and Dainius Zubrus, who scored with 8:49 left in regulation to cut the lead to two after Elias forced a turnover the Rangers zone. Lundqvist then held offthe Devils, who had scored three goals in the last 3:04 on Friday night, when Brodeur was pulled with two minutes left in regulation.
That was played without Kovalchuk, however. With 2:16 left, Sean Avery yapped at Kovalchuk from behind, and the Russian jabbed him with his stick before swapping shoves and punches, as each got four minutes for roughing.
With the victory, the Rangers extended their record against New Jersey to 2-1-1 this year. “When you can beat one of the best teams in the East, it’s a huge win for us, a confidence boost,” said Del Zotto.
Defensemen Dan Girardi and Matt Gilroy have struggled, but toinight were major contributors.
Girardi was assigned to shadow sniper Ilya Kovalchuk. Decision: Girardi, who played a team-high 23:35 and kept Kovalchuk off the scoresheet..
“Danny was our best defenseman, I thought tonight,” said coach John Tortorella. “What he was doing was striking Kovalchuk before he could get speed and space. I thought Danny played really well against a very good player.”
Gilroy, who has been sent to AHL Hartford for four games in mid-December to shore up his defense, played just 14 minutes, but seemed to have more zing to his game on both ends of the ice. He had three shots and joined rushes with confidence.
“In the last two games. I think he has played much better,” said Tortorella. “It is a consistent learning curve where he is trying to take people out. He’s been playing harder on people.” After blocking a shot, “he made a great pass on Dru’s (Chris Drury) goal. He is more involved in the offense.”
In the last two games against the Devils, Henrik Lundqvist has stopped 86 of 87 shots….“When you know Hank is on his game, we’re going to have a great chance to win if we get one goal, maybe even two,” said Ryan Callahan. “It’s uplifting to see him play like that.” …Chris Drury is two points shy of 600 for his career….Drury and Olli Jokinen were 18-for-28 on faceoffs....Brandon Prust’s 21 fighting majors lead the league. The former Flame has 29 minutes in penalties in three games as a Ranger… Donald Brashear was scratched for the sixth straight and 11th of 12. Aaron Voros (sore neck) did not dress for the second consecutive game.
The Rangers have three days without a game for the first time since Dec. 27-29. It was a stretch of 21 games in 39 days during which the Blueshirts were 7-10-3 before last night. Three games remain before the Olympic break, with Nashville closing the three-game homestand Wednesday. The Rangers visit Pittsburgh Friday before a home matinee Sunday against the Lightning.
FYI. Rangers are off on Super Bowl Sunday and will practice at 11 Monday.