The remarkable Rangers will go to sleep tonight in rarefied air: Atop the NHL with 91 points with 18 games to play.
In a Madison Square Garden matinee flush with momentum swings, Derek Stepan’s goal at 12:21 of the third period, a rising snap shot over the glove of Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas, lifted the Rangers to a 4-3 victory over Boston yesterday.
Stepan’s goal came 39 seconds after Bruins forward David Krejci had tied the game after the puck hit Dan Girardi’s stick and went right to him. “If it goes anywhere else, we’re okay,” said Girardi. “We knew it was a tough break. Now we’ve got that instinct, even if they make a good play, we’ll come back. That’s what separates this team from the past years.” The Blueshirts are 42-15-7, including 22-7-2 at home, the best through 31 games since 1993-94.
Coach John Tortorella said the win, accomplished without injured captain Ryan Callahan, was especially fulfilling, because his troops “worked their (butts) off… I feel even better about it; we were playing our third game in 2 ½ days. I have a tremendous amount of respect for those guys.”
The victory---the third this season and fifth in a row against the Bruins---extended the Rangers’ Eastern Conference lead to 12 points over Boston. It wasn't easy, because the Bruins were stronger much of the contest, outshooting the Rangers 33-17. “I felt in the first and third we were making plays, but they took control in the second,” said Stepan, who has four goals and eight assists in the last 15 games.
At the start of the third, Tortorella mixed lines and it paid off. He sent out red-hot Marian Gaborik with Brad Richards and Carl Hagelin. “We had 10 shots on net (through two periods),” said Richards. “No one’s going to argue with changing something up to see if we can get some momentum.”
Gaborik provided a 3-2 lead at 3:14. Seconds after his wrister from the slot off a rush was kicked away by Thomas, Gaborik went to the left post and snared Dennis Seidenberg’s clearing attempt from behind the net, went to his backhand and stuffed the puck in. It was Gaborik’s fifth goal in six games and 32nd of the year.
The third meeting with the defending Stanley Cup champs featured three bouts in the first period, including a fierce battle between Lane MacDermid, playing his first NHL game, and Mike Rupp, just 2:40 after the puck dropped. Brandon Prust then went with Milan Lucic at 7:59 and was pummeled.
Up 2-0 for the second consecutive game, this time on Ruslan Fedotenko’s deflection and Hagelin’s wraparound 1:10 apart, the Rangers and Henrik Lundqvist (30 saves) could not maintain the edge. The Bruins, who are missing several key players, stormed back. Benoit Pouliot’s one-timer off a deflected pass by Anton Stralman, went through Lundqvist’s pads. Then, after the first period was suspended with 2:33 left to fix a crack in the glass, Jordan Caron picked off Girardi’s pass, used him as a screen and beat Lundqvist shortside at 1:40 of the second period.
“We just tried to simplify things in the third, gaining the zone,” said Michael Del Zotto, who fed Stepan for the winner. “We’ve done it before.” Which is why, at least for one day, the Rangers are looking down at the rest of the league.