NEW YORK -- Henrik Lundqvist wasn't scheduled to start Tuesday night, so it's tough to blame the All-Star goaltender if his thoughts in the morning were more on how he would spend his time in Ottawa this weekend and less on how he needed to prepare to stifle the Winnipeg Jets.
Backup Martin Biron was ready to make the start, but he left Tuesday morning's practice feeling under the weather and was unable to play -- so instead of getting 10 days off, Lundqvist had to readjust his mindset for one more game at Madison Square Garden.
"I was already in vacation mode almost," said Lundqvist, who made 22 saves in the Rangers' 3-0 victory for his fifth shutout of the season. "I had time to regroup and think about what I had to do and how I had to play to have success today and it worked out."
Ryan Callahan, John Mitchell and Brad Richards provided the offense for the Rangers, who enter the All-Star break in first place in the Eastern Conference with 66 points, two more than the Boston Bruins, in 47 games. The Rangers trail the Detroit Red Wings by one point in the chase for the Presidents' Trophy, but have played two fewer games than the Western Conference leaders.
The Rangers could have had a letdown in what was a consummate trap game. They were coming off an emotional 3-2 overtime road win against the Bruins on Saturday and had a game against a struggling Jets team between them and a restful week off. Another reason to take the Jets lightly was the fact this was Winnipeg's third game in four nights and the second in as many nights, usually a recipe for dead legs.
Another reason for the Rangers to exhale was the Jets entered Tuesday's game 0-7-0 in the second half of back-to-back games.
Instead, the Rangers never let the Jets get going and controlled the game from start to finish, save for a five-minute stretch to start the third period when Lundqvist had to be sharp to preserve a two-goal lead.
"We didn't want a letdown after Boston," said center Brad Richards, who snapped a seven-game goal drought by scoring late in the third period to ice the contest.
"Looking ahead to the break, it was one of those games where you really want to bear down. They were on a back-to-back, we caught them a little tired. We had a few breakdowns -- Hank was there for that. We just kept doing what we were supposed to do."
Rangers coach John Tortorella cares as little about the standings in late January as he does about almost anything, but he's happy with where his team is through 47 games.
"In these last three (games) here, I thought we put some good minutes together," Tortorella said. "We played a really good game against Boston. I thought we really concentrated on defending first tonight. I think it's a good time for a break. I'm happy with our mindset. This game worried me after an emotional game in Boston. I think that's why we've gotten the points we have this year. We haven't looked by anybody. There have been a number of trap games, and I think they've handled themselves well."
Callahan's 17th goal of the season at 4:05 of the first period sent the message that the Rangers wouldn't look past the Jets, who are 3-6-1 in their last 10.
Defenseman Anton Stralman fired a high hard shot that was stopped by goaltender Ondrej Pavelec, who made 28 saves on a night when he was mostly a solo act. The rebound came to rest at the feet of Callahan, who swept it into the open net to get the Rangers off on the right foot.
The Rangers maintained their 1-0 through the midway point of the second period. Lundqvist wasn't called upon to make many saves, but he made a big one early in the second period on Jets forward Chris Thorburn, who had two fights with Mike Rupp. Thorburn tried to finish a 2-on-1 chance at the right post, but Lundqvist stopped it with his left pad.
The timely save allowed Mitchell to make it 2-0 with 6:38 left in the period. Defenseman Michael Del Zotto led the rush and fed the puck to Mitchell on the left side. From there, Mitchell launched a wrist shot that hit off Pavelec's left arm and found the top corner to provide some valuable insurance against a Jets team that could muster only 12 shots through two periods.
Not long after Mitchell's goal, captain Andrew Ladd was denied by Lundqvist's blocker on a 2-on-1 chance; about 30 seconds later, Blake Wheeler couldn't finish another 2-on-1 chance at the right post, instead hitting iron.
"I thought we were physical, and that we tried to generate things, but obviously we weren't able to execute any goals," Jets coach Claude Noel said. "That certainly creates a problem."
Lundqvist enters the break leading in the NHL (among full-time starters) with a 1.87 goals-against average and .937 save percentage. He's 22-10-4 and looking like a surefire finalist for his first Vezina Trophy. His shutout moved him into a tie for second place all-time in Rangers history with 40, nine fewer than Eddie Giacomin.
Despite all the first-half accolades, Lundqvist thinks he could be better.
"We still know we have parts of our game that we have to improve," Lundqvist said. "Personally, I know there's part of my game I have to improve as well. We just have to keep challenging ourselves to try to get better and the challenge is to stay on top."
Some players have remarked that since they have ascended to the top of the standings this month, teams are bringing their best every time. No one takes a night off against one of the League's top teams, and that's something that will only continue during the second half.
"The League is going to get better, the tempo is going to get better," Tortorella said. "It not only gets to be a quicker game, but there's more grind to it too. We cannot stop working on all parts of our game."
The Rangers' next game is Tuesday on the road against the New Jersey Devils. The Jets also return to action Tuesday with a road game against the Philadelphia Flyers.
"To be at the top of the conference is good," said defenseman Dan Girardi, who will be with Lundqvist and Henrik Lundqvist for the 2012 Tim Hortons All-Star Game in Ottawa. "We can't be satisfied with a good first half and come back next Tuesday and just through the motions. We have to enjoy the break, get some rest and continue."
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo
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