As the Rangers reached the midpoint of the season tonight, coach John Tortorella laid out an agenda. “We have lost a little hardness of late, especially early on. That needs to change,” said Tortorella, “because the games are going to be tougher, things don’t come as easy, the second half is a grittier game. We need to get a jump on the mindset on how we have to approach this.”
The Rangers lived up to the mission statement tonight, especially Henrik Lundqvist, who bested Cam Ward’s performance in a phenomenal goaltenders’ duel, the best of the season at Madison Square Garden.
It took Norwegian rookie Mats Zuccarello’s first NHL goal, with 1:51 left in overtime, to secure a 2-1 win. On the game-winner, Lundqvist got the puck to Brandon Dubinsky, who carried it down the left side, and his shot was stopped by Ward. But Zuccarello grabbed his own try, went around the net and fired it in from along the goal line to Ward’s left. So the Rangers (23-15-3) close the first half of the season with 49 points.
From the first period on, the Rangers executed the game plan. Brandon Prust exchanged haymakers with Carolina’s bigger Troy Bodie at 6:07.
The Rangers forwards executed some extended cycling to get the jump on the Hurricanes, dominating 5-on-5 but trying one too many pass, and missing the net rather than forcing Ward (33 saves) to handle rebounds.
Sean Avery was particularly active, with two shots and some spirited forechecking. On the other end, Lundqvist (31 saves) stopped 13 shots to support the Rangers’ two penalty kills in the scoreless first.
Ward and Lundqvist continued to battle until Matt Gilroy’s wrister snapped the scoreless tie at 8:41 of the third period.
Dubinsky was digging for the puck in the left corner and was upended by defenseman Joe Corvo, but not before Dubinsky slid the puck to Zuccarello behind the net, who found Gilroy open. Gilroy, playing more minutes with Michael Del Zotto shipped to Hartford on Monday, wasted no time and the puck went though a screened Ward for the 1-0 lead.
But the Rangers couldn’t protect the lead. Erik Staal won a faceoff in the right circle and Lundqvist made a save on Corvo’s low shot from the point, but Staal charged the net, losing Brian Boyle, and potted the rebound at 13:46 to tie it.
In the third, after Ward robbed Derek Stepan and Dubinsky from point blank in a 1:53 power play to start the period, Erik Cole was freed for a breakaway but missed the net. Steve Eminger went into the box, but Lundqvist stopped Carolina’s two power-play shots, including a wrister from Staal that he kicked out with his pad. Ward held his ground against Marian Gaborik, who had deked around Brandon Sutter.
The Rangers have scored more goals than at this juncture last season and allowed fewer, but Tortorella, assessing the Eastern Conference, predicted “a dogfight” for the playoffs. “Our team has to be better than we were the first half,” he said, “if we want a chance.”