NEWARK, N.J. -- Less than two weeks ago the New York Rangers appeared to be showing their warts as a team that could play well, could hang in tight games, but couldn't close. That seems like a distant memory now.
Nothing is set, not even close, especially with a pair of home games this week against the Phoenix Coyotes and Philadelphia Flyers followed by a four-game western road trip. But after going 2-4-1 to start the month, the Rangers have won four of their past five games. All four victories have come on the road, where they have a League-best 23 wins.
They beat the New Jersey Devils 2-0 on Saturday at Prudential Center to solidify their spot as the third-place team in the Metropolitan Division. The Rangers have 82 points, one fewer than the red-hot Flyers and three more than the fourth-place Washington Capitals. They are four up on the Columbus Blue Jackets, a team the Rangers beat Friday night.
"You have to get traction now," defenseman Marc Staal said. "Look at the standings, everyone wins or gets points every night. It was time to get down to business and start stringing some wins together."
While still leery of the teams chasing them, the Rangers are less concerned now because of how they've been playing. They beat the Devils and Blue Jackets on back-to-back nights because they didn't abandon the type of game they know they have to play in order to clinch a playoff berth.
New York again received big-time efforts from one of the NHL's best, and arguably most underrated, defense corps. In fact, the Rangers' defensive performance Saturday might have been their best of the season.
They kept the Devils on the outside for most of the night and limited second-chance opportunities. The 21 shots on goal were the fewest the Rangers have allowed since Dec. 20, when the New York Islanders had 20 but scored on five of them for a win at Madison Square Garden.
Lundqvist is a much different goalie now than he was then. Heck, he's a much different goalie now than he was a few weeks ago. The Rangers as a whole are playing a much stingier game than they were earlier this month. The lone hiccup came against the Ottawa Senators this past Tuesday, but the Rangers dominated offensively in that game for an 8-4 win. Otherwise they have been lights out on the defensive end.
"We haven't gotten sidetracked from playing to our strengths," defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. "Obviously in Columbus it was a pretty physical game, and one where we could have taken penalties and gotten out of our game, out of hand. Here [Saturday] they were physical and there were a lot of times they were clogging it up and we weren't able to generate a lot of offense, but we just stayed with it, continued to chip pucks, use our speed and find a way to get one goal there."
The game-winner came in the second period from Rick Nash, who has scored three goals in the past three games after getting one in his previous nine games. Nash didn't score in his return to Columbus on Friday, but he was arguably the best forward on the ice -- he was assertive, aggressive and chippy. Nash had seven shots on goal, and his second fight of the season, against his old team.
He was one of many Rangers who played a smart, simple and physical game Saturday. When the Rangers have those three traits on their side, they can play like one of the top teams in the League.
That's how they looked Friday and Saturday.
"I think our physicality and our attention to detail in our [defensive] end has been a lot better the last couple of games," Staal said. "In Ottawa it was pretty sloppy. I mean, we won 8-4 but we weren't happy with the way we played that game. To turn it around like that, especially after a win, it's hard to do. You get comfortable, but we turned it around and played a solid game in Columbus, and then held them to 21 shots [Saturday night]. I think that part of our game has been good and has to be down the stretch. You can't win if you don't play good defense."
The Rangers would make things a lot easier if they could get their sputtering power play back in order.
They're still in the top half of the League in terms of power-play percentage (18.9), but they are 3-for-31 with the man-advantage in their past 10 games. Even the three is deceiving because one of those three goals is center Derek Stepan's empty-netter Saturday night.
"You look at the good power plays around the League and guys are taking their time, they're making plays, everything is tape-to-tape, they're moving, shooting the puck," center Derick Brassard said. "For us, I think every time we start a power play we try to put everything through instead of getting set up and taking our time. It's not going to happen in the first 10 seconds; it might happen at the end of the power play. I think if we're more patient and just make tape-to-tape passes it's going to be better."
Maybe the power play is the next part of New York's game that will come around. It certainly would make locking up a playoff berth easier. However, as long as the Rangers continue to get quality goaltending from Lundqvist and play their smart, simple, physical brand of hockey in front of him, they really shouldn't have much to worry about.
Nothing is set yet, not even close, but all of a sudden the Rangers look like closers.
"It just seems like we've become more mature as a team, a little bit more experienced with each other, understanding by examples in the past of what it takes for our team to win games, and it's not trying to be pretty all the time," McDonagh said.
"I just like the way we've gone about games and stayed really focused. It seems we've been taking it shift-by-shift as a group and that's a good sign here at this point in the season."