Derek Stepan and his linemates more than atoned for a shaky start.
Stepan scored his first three goals of the season and the Rangers won their third in a row by beating the struggling Hurricanes 5-1 at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night.
"The last three games our line has kind of clicked," Stepan said, "and I give credit to those two guys because they're really pushed my pace."
It was the second hat trick of Stepan's career and the first since he scored three times in his NHL debut against the Buffalo Sabres on Oct. 9, 2010. Stepan has been rounding into shape after missing the preseason while working out a new contract.
But it nearly didn't happen. Rangers coach Alain Vigneault was unhappy with the line's play during the early stages of the game and sat all three for a chunk of the first period.
"Their first three shifts were totally in our zone," he said. "I must have sat that line for eight or nine minutes in the first period.
"I liked the way they responded. I challenged them and they responded the right way. They went on the ice and had some real solid puck-possession shifts."
New York was 2-6-0 before a 3-2 overtime victory against the Detroit Red Wings last Saturday capped a nine-game road trip. The Rangers lost 2-0 to the Montreal Canadiens in their home opener on Monday, but have beaten the New York Islanders on the road and the Buffalo Sabres and Hurricanes at Madison Square Garden in a five-day span to improve to 6-7-0. New York can get back to the .500 mark by beating the Anaheim Ducks at the Garden on Monday night.
Carl Hagelin scored his first two goals of the season and Henrik Lundqvist continued his rebound from a poor start to the season by stopping 27 shots, including a number of superb stops in the early stages of the game and the third period.
"Hank, in my mind, was the best player on the ice," Vigneault said.
The Rangers have won four of their past five games and nine in a row against Carolina.
Andrej Sekera scored the lone goal for the Hurricanes, who've dropped five in a row and fell to 4-7-3. Justin Peters, playing because of injuries to starter Cam Ward and backup Anton Khudobin, made 33 saves.
The victory wasn't as easy as the score might indicate.
Carolina hemmed the Rangers in their own zone through the early minutes of the game, but the Rangers turned their first real scoring chance into the game-opening goal.
Brad Richards grabbed a loose puck along the half-wall in his own zone, spun and whipped a pass to Benoit Pouliot, triggering a 2-on-2 rush. Pouliot dished the puck to Hagelin on his left and continued toward the net, taking both defensemen with him. Hagelin cut to the high slot and whipped a long backhander inside the left post for his first goal of the season.
"That first goal was a really important goal," Hagelin said. "We had a rough start. After that goal we started battling harder."
Carolina coach Kirk Muller agreed that the first goal was key, but not for the same reason.
"Give our guys credit: They came in here after last night [a 3-0 home loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning] ready to play," he said. "We're a little bit of a fragile team, and giving up that first goal seems to be a pattern. It kind of pushes you on your heels a bit."
Hagelin may have saved a goal early in the second period by hooking Patrick Dwyer, who was alone in front of Lundqvist. The Rangers goalie made his best save of the night early in the power play by robbing Eric Staal from the lower right circle.
New York killed off the rest of the power play, then doubled its lead at 8:16 when Hagelin jumped out of the penalty box, grabbed a dump-out by Taylor Pyatt in the corner to the left of Peters, swept into the slot and slid the puck under the goaltender.
Stepan made it 3-0 at 15:54. With Manny Malhotra off for cross-checking, the Hurricanes failed to clear the puck from in front of their net after Peters stopped Kreider's blast from the blue line. Stepan found the loose puck in the slot and whipped it past Peters.
Carolina got on the board with 36.2 seconds remaining in the period, ending Lundqvist's shutout streak just short of five full periods. New York's Derek Dorsett was off for elbowing when Sekera controlled the puck along the left boards near the top of the circle and flung a shot at the net. The puck appeared to hit the glove of Rangers defenseman Anton Stralman and caught the far top corner for Sekera's second of the season.
Peters kept the Hurricanes in the game 75 seconds into the third period when he stopped Hagelin from well inside the left circle on a 3-on-1 break. On the return rush, Lundqvist stopped Nathan Gerbe on a 2-on-1.
The Rangers put the game away at 9:09 when Stepan was left alone in the slot, took a passout from Zuccarello and one-timed it behind a defenseless Peters. Stepan completed his hat trick at 14:37 when his pass from the right circle for Kreider hit Sekera and deflected into the net.
"We came out ready to go in the third period and didn't get the timely said," said Muller, who felt his team played well enough to score more than one goal.
"We have to stay on focus. We had enough chances to score; we had plenty of good opportunities," he said. "We have to stay with it. We have to keep our guys believing that if they do all the little things, the right things, that things will change around."
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