NEW YORK -- With a three-goal lead vanishing like a thief in the night and momentum leaking out of Madison Square Garden like air out of a poorly tied balloon, Brad Richards gave the Rangers a shot in the arm with a dagger of a goal.
Richards finished a pretty give-and-go play at the blue line with Brandon Prust by firing a laser of a wrist shot that eluded the catching glove of goaltender Carey Price with 1:10 left in the second period, restoring the Rangers two-goal cushion. It turned out to be the deciding goal in a 5-3 victory against the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden.
The Rangers jumped to a 3-0 lead in the first period, but the Canadiens pushed back hard during the second period, scoring two goals and coming within a hair of two more as shots from P.K. Subban and Erik Cole rang off the post.
But when push came to shove, it was Richards who did the shoving for the Rangers.
"A goal at the end of the period, when you had a three-goal lead and it's whittled down to one, it's always nice to get one and regroup," Richards said. "You have more of a lead going into the third period and it's a totally different game."
"It's a big goal," Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "You can tell from the start of the second period when they scored, it was going to be one of those periods. To come away up two going into the third period was important."
The goal proved to be more than just a symbolic moment when the Canadiens' backs were broken. Brian Gionta brought the Canadiens to within a goal with 1:50 left in regulation, but Ryan Callahan answered with an empty netter with 38.6 seconds remaining to give the Rangers their third straight win and snap the Canadiens' winning streak at four games.
When the Rangers returned home from a month away from Madison Square Garden, a sojourn with stops in Europe, Western Canada and Long Island, they were a team that was unable to get into a rhythm. They dropped their first two home games, and that included a third-period collapse that saw the Rangers squander a three-goal third-period lead to the Ottawa Senators.
That all seems like a distant memory during this brief win streak, as the Rangers are finally feeling settled and confident.
"Looking at our last three games, if you look at the intensity, the speed, it definitely helped us being here for a little bit," said goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who made 25 saves. "We've been practicing and getting rest. We knew, especially the first game coming back, would be tough. But we responded well the last couple games."
One thing that will help any team's chances of winning is playing with the man-advantage for more than a quarter of the game, which is what the Rangers did Thursday. They were only 1-for-9 on the power play, but spent 16 minutes of the game playing with the man advantage. The Canadiens' parade to the penalty box started after a wild melee in the first period that was galvanized by Mike Blunden.
The Rangers were advancing through the neutral zone, with Brandon Dubinsky carrying the puck. Blunden jumped off the bench and leveled Dubinsky, which led to Callahan dropping the gloves with Blunden. Both received five minutes for fighting, while the Rangers' Michael Sauer and the Canadiens' Petteri Nokelainen were ejected for their fight, which started after the Callahan-Blunden fight.
Sauer and Nokelainen were subject to rule 46.7, which states: "A game misconduct penalty shall be imposed on any player who is assessed a major penalty for fighting after the original altercation has started."
On top of those penalties, Hal Gill and Dubinsky received roughing minors, and the Canadiens were hit with a too many men on the ice penalty because of Blunden joining the play too soon, and he was also called for interference for engaging Dubinsky immediately after leaving the bench. All the penalties occurred at 4:18.
That gave the Rangers a two-minute 5-on-3 power play, and it took them just 39 seconds to break the scoreless tie.
Derek Stepan, who had two assists, delivered a perfect pass across the crease to Erik Christensen, who matter-of-factly tapped it upstairs to make it 1-0. It was the only power-play goal the Rangers would net, but playing with the man-advantage for so many minutes kept the Habs at bay.
"Sometimes it goes against you when you have that many power plays piled up on you, it's not the same rhythm of the game," Richards said. "You'd like to score more, but it created some momentum. We probably got that three-goal lead because of all the power plays and pressure. Their guys were worn out."
Dan Girardi's goal at 10:28 that gave the Rangers a 2-0 lead came 7 seconds after a power play expired. He fired a one-timer from the right circle that beat Price to the glove side after a pretty feed from Artem Anisimov. Michael Del Zotto, who was given the hat of greatness after the game, made it 3-0 when he finished a 3-on-2 rush by beating Price with a backhander that slid under his left pad.
Del Zotto played 27:26 with Sauer sent to the showers early and Tortorella not having enough faith in Jeff Woywitka to play him more than 6:45.
"The more minutes you play, the more comfortable you feel in the game," Del Zotto said. "I think we did a good job as a whole of keeping it simple and not trying to do too much to tire ourselves out."
Max Pacioretty and Andrei Kostitsyn answered with two goals in the second period to put the Rangers on their heels. The Canadiens won the shot battle 13-6 during the period, but it was the sixth shot of the period from Richards that made all the difference.
"That goal was probably the key goal, because I thought we were back in the hockey game," Canadiens coach Jacques Martin said. "I thought we had a strong second period, with a goal at the beginning of the period that gave us momentum. There was a mistake in the neutral zone. That cost us."
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo
Wrist shot -
1 - 0 NYR
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2 - 0 NYR
Michael Del Zotto
Backhand shot -
3 - 0 NYR
Snap shot -
3 - 1 NYR
Snap shot -