NEW YORK -- The Rangers acquired the services of Bryan McCabe at the trade deadline for two important reasons -- to quarterback the team's sagging power play and provide leadership for the youngest group of defensemen in the NHL.
McCabe's talents in those areas were on display Tuesday night against the New York Islanders. The 35-year-old defenseman scored his first power-play goal with his new team and made what coach John Tortorella called a game-changing play to set up the winning goal in the Rangers' 6-3 victory against the New York Islanders at Madison Square Garden.
The Islanders were surging in the second period, trailing 3-2 after entering the period down by two goals. While killing a penalty, Matt Martin had a scoring chance erased by a McCabe poke check that started the Rangers in the opposite direction. Marian Gaborik finished the rush with a quick wrist shot that eluded goaltender Al Montoya and restored the Rangers' two-goal lead.
The final nail in the Islanders' coffin was McCabe's power-play goal with 49 seconds remaining in the second period that put the Rangers up 5-2. The Rangers went 3-for-5 on the power play and are 7-for-32 (21.9 percent) with the man-advantage since McCabe joined the team eight games ago.
"I think for the last little while, it's been OK," Tortorella said. "I think it's come along. I thought Caber really stood out tonight. He had a big goal, made some good passes."
McCabe, who doesn't wear a letter for the Rangers, even stepped up to talk to the officials after a 10-man scrum late in the third period with the outcome no longer in doubt.
"He's a veteran a guy. I'm not sure if he's allowed over there. Maybe he just wanted to go over there," Tortorella said with a chuckle before talking about how McCabe is adjusting from playing 20-plus minutes a game in Florida to about 16 with the Rangers. "I like the way he's handled himself, because he's in a different role. It's hard for him sometimes, as far as the role he's been put in."
"Guys respect him," said Erik Christensen, who scored a power-play goal in the first period. "He makes smart decisions. People respect him for how long he has been around and what he is capable of doing on special teams."
The Rangers moved into sole possession of seventh place in the Eastern Conference. They jumped ahead of the Buffalo Sabres, who lost 1-0 to the Carolina Hurricanes in regulation on Tuesday. But it's a double-edged sword for the Rangers, who remain four points ahead of the ninth-place Hurricanes.
"We still have a lot of hockey left. We still see it as we are in a critical spot," said Lundqvist, who was still waiting on the outcome of 'Canes-Sabres when he spoke to the media. "We need to play our best. You get a couple of wins and you feel great. It is really important."
The Rangers jumped to a 2-0 lead on the strength of first-period goals by Brandon Prust, a shorthanded goal, and Christensen. It was a dominant performance that saw the Rangers outshoot the Islanders 21-12. But three key saves by Lundqvist, including a sprawling glove save on Kyle Okposo when the score was still 1-0, kept the Islanders in a hole.
But it's hardly ever a walk in the park in this rivalry. The Islanders received goals from Matt Moulson -- his 30th of the season -- and PA Parenteau during the first 3:50 of the second period. Not longer after, Frans Nielsen nearly put the Isles ahead, but his wrist shot off a 2-on-1 rush was stopped by Lundqvist.
"We were sleeping," Rangers forward Vinny Prospal said. "We weren't ready for the start of the second period."
But three goals from Ryan Callahan -- his 21st of the season -- Gaborik and McCabe over the final 8:29 of the second period turned a potential collapse into a blowout for the Rangers.
"Hank -- especially in the first period -- made some key saves," Tortorella said. "We got into trading chances with them a little bit. We can't trade chances. We won a big game. We have to clean up our defense and find a way to play more consistently."
Montoya, who has been a revelation since he was acquired by the Islanders last month, was lifted to start the third period after allowing five goals on 36 shots. Nathan Lawson allowed only Gaborik's second of the game and 20th of the season during his 11-shot third period.
"I think he looked tired," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said of Montoya. "He has been battling for us and I think he looked a little fatigued. Pucks were finding some holes but I thought he looked a little tired. He battled had for us over the last month."
It's understandable for a goaltender's legs to get heavy when he's under assault by an opposing power play that launched 16 shots on goal. McCabe had three shots for the game and 16 since joining the Rangers.
"We're just getting pucks through," McCabe said. "Traffic is the key to success. Shoot the puck with people in front and you will have success. The power play did a great job tonight."
The Rangers have won 4 of 5 and are playing with about as healthy a roster as they have all season. There was a time when Kris Newbury was a lock to get into the lineup; on Tuesday, Tortorella scratched Wojtek Wolski and inserted Sean Avery back into the lineup after sitting out the team's previous game in San Jose on Saturday.
Avery took three minor penalties, with the third resulting in John Tavares' 26th goal of the season and third point of the game late in the third period. Cameras showed a furious Tortorella on the bench following the goal, but he refused to comment on Avery's play after the game.
But if the healthy Rangers can build on this momentum against the Montreal Canadiens at home on Friday, perhaps that will help Tortorella's mood and get the team thinking about more than just getting into the playoffs.
"It's a good feeling in the room right now, but we have to keep looking forward," Callahan said. "It is so tight in the East so we have to keep doing what we are doing. If we win games, we are going to be in the playoffs. That's all we have to worry about."