NEW YORK -- Some people take a day off from work on their birthday. Ryan Callahan isn't one of those people.
The Rangers' captain celebrated turning 27 on Wednesday by putting forth a tireless effort on both ends of the ice, capping it off by scoring in overtime to give his club a 2-1 victory against the shorthanded Detroit Red Wings at Madison Square Garden.
Callahan fired eight shots on net, blocked two shots, including a dangerous chance for defenseman Niklas Kronwall with 1:03 left in regulation, and chased down Pavel Datsyuk to thwart a shorthanded breakaway during the third period to keep the game tied.
"He just had an unbelievable third period and overtime," Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "He does so much for the hockey club. It's fitting that he gets the winning goal. I thought Ryan Callahan was our best player."
Brandon Dubinsky started the rush that led to Callahan's goal and slid the puck to defenseman Michael Del Zotto on the left side as he gained the blue line. Del Zotto fed it into the middle to Callahan, who snapped a shot that beat goaltender Ty Conklin high to the blocker side with 2:18 remaining in the extra session.
It was an especially rewarding finish Callahan, who missed a wide-open net earlier in the game.
"It's a great play by everyone involved," said Callahan, who is three goals shy of his first 30-goal season. "It was a good birthday gift. They tried to set me up in the second, but I missed a wide-open net. I had to respond back."
With the victory, the Rangers extended their lead over the Pittsburgh Penguins for first in the Eastern Conference to three points. The Penguins, who have a game in hand on the Rangers, are 12-0-1 in their last 13 games to turn a once insurmountable edge into one that's far more attainable over the final two-plus weeks.
It's been somewhat of a blessing in disguise for the Rangers, who hit a lull as the calendar turned to March. But over the last three games (2-1-0), the Rangers appear to have rediscovered what brought them to discuss with the Penguins nipping at their heels.
"I think it's good," said goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who made 26 saves for his 34th win of the season. "We know they're coming. We need to push ourselves. We still try to focus on our game and not so much on the standings, at least for me personally. I'm just trying to get to a level where I'm playing my best game and I'm getting there. It's been a couple weeks here where I feel OK, but I feel like I can improve and play better. I think as a team, the last few games we've been playing well."
Callahan echoed that sentiment.
"I think no matter if we have a 10-point lead or a one- or two-point lead, we need to keep our focus. We need to stay sharp," he said. "With them on our heels, it forces us to do that. We're aware of what's going on and how close they are. We just have to keep our game in order."
The consolation point earned by the Red Wings, who have lost six straight and are 1-6-2 in their last nine games, moved them ahead of idle Nashville for fourth place in the Western Conference. The Predators have played one fewer game than the Red Wings, but will make that one up Thursday night in Pittsburgh in a contest that carries interest for both Rangers and Red Wings fans.
The Red Wings' list of injuries is as long as it is impressive. They played Wednesday night without Nicklas Lidstrom (foot), Jimmy Howard (groin), Johan Franzen (back), Darren Helm (knee), Jonathan Ericsson (wrist), Joey MacDonald (back) and Jakub Kindl (upper body).
Despite being hamstrung, the Red Wings got on the board early in the first period when Henrik Zetterberg's shot deflected off a Ranger and through the legs of Lundqvist to make it 1-0.
The Rangers answered with a power-play goal at the 14:58 mark of the first when Brad Richards finished a glorious end-to-end rush by slipping a shot through the legs of Conklin, who was called up from the AHL on re-entry waivers to make the start with Howard and MacDonald ailing. Richards faked out Kronwall on the way to the net to knot the game at 1-1.
That goal gave Richards six goals and nine assists in his last 11 games.
"That was a great play. He did it himself," Callahan said. "He walked through the defenseman, and that's what he's been bringing us lately. You can see he's on top of his game. He has confidence and when he's playing like that, it's fun to watch."
"It's March, under 10 games left, you want to contribute," Richards said. "You want to help your teammates. That's what we do. I think the whole team, we're starting to feel better the last few games. It's a good time of year to start getting that way."
Rangers defenseman Marc Staal was awarded the celebratory Broadway hat that has been passed around throughout the season after victories. Staal wasn't named one of the game's three stars, but his sliding break-up of a 2-on-1 late in the third period kept the game tied and allowed Callahan the chance to win it in overtime.
"I thought the biggest play of the game was Staalsie's 2-on-1 play when it goes down the ice and they get nothing out of it," said Tortorella, who also cited a save by Lundqvist in the first period off a Del Zotto turnover that led to a Valtteri Filppula chance to keep it 1-0 as the other big moment. "We were kind of going up and down the ice with them."
Staal missed the Rangers' first 36 games while recovering from a concussion and hasn't been playing the same minutes has he has in the past when he was the club's leader in ice time the past two seasons. But just like the Rangers, he seems to be coming around at the right time.
"It's starting to come. It's been a struggle at times, but getting back to playing more physical, and getting that snarl back, I think that has helped," Staal said. "I think the last few (games), we've been playing the way we wanted. The last couple games we've gotten the result. We want to ride that out, take that into the playoffs."
The Rangers will conclude their seven-game homestand (4-2-0) Friday when they face the Buffalo Sabres, who moved into a tie with eighth-place Washington on Wednesday night by beating the Montreal Canadiens 3-0. The Capitals own the tiebreakers, so the Sabres are currently in ninth place but could be a first-round opponent of the Rangers come playoff time.
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo