NEW YORK -- If the Carolina Hurricanes want to climb out of the Eastern Conference basement and into the playoff race, they're going to need as many wins as possible against teams they are chasing over their final 30 games of the season.
On Wednesday night they did just that, handing the New York Rangers a 5-1 loss at Madison Square Garden and picking up an important two points. The loss was the Rangers' fourth straight and they've scored just three goals during the skid.
Eric Staal and Sergei Samsonov each scored twice for the Hurricanes. Patrick Dwyer opened the scoring for Carolina just 3:11 into the game, and the Rangers never drew even the rest of the game.
Ryan Callahan, by far the Rangers' best player on this night, pulled his team to within a goal early in the second period. But Samsonov's goal 41 seconds later seemed to suck the life out of the reeling Blueshirts.
Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward was fantastic, stopping 37 of 38 shots, including 21 of 22 during a busy second period when the Rangers were surging. He made his most brilliant save of the night from the seat of his pants, sweeping a bouncing puck off the goal line to keep the score 3-1 early in the third period.
"The score is what it is because he is that good," Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice said of his goaltender. "He made some real good saves there in tight, especially in the second period when they had the two power plays, and that really gave them some life. He was the difference in the second period."
The win pulled the Hurricanes to within 14 points of the No. 8 spot in the East, still a long way to go with less than half the season remaining. But they are 7-5-0 this month and there aren't many teams between them and a playoff spot -- including the Rangers -- who are playing very well right now. Carolina hosts the Islanders on Thursday night.
"It just shows the character we have on this team," Ward said. "It has not been an easy season. Obviously we're one of the last-place teams in the League, but guys continue to come to the rink and are willing to work hard and try to better ourselves. All we can do is keep playing with some pride and try to move forward.
"You gotta believe there's still that chance. But you gotta try to take it one game at a time, don't look too far ahead and you can't do anything about the past. All we do now is get ready for the Islanders."
Staal's two goals Wednesday give him 7 in 4 games since he replaced Rod Brind'Amour as team captain. The Hurricanes are 3-1-0 over that span, but Staal's not ready to credit the 'C' on his jersey for either the team's or his own recent hot streak.
"Right now, pucks are going in. I don't think I've changed my game too much," Staal said. "It's just coincidence that first night wearing it I got a hat trick and kind of heated up from there. And right now I'm trying to ride the hot stick and be ready every night."
The Rangers entered the game in seventh place in the East, but they were the ones who looked like they were trying to climb out of the conference cellar.
Dwyer and Staal put the Rangers in a 2-0 hole just 3:36 into the game. Dwyer scored off a sweet deflection of a Joni Pitkanen blast from the point, but Staal's first of the game can be classified as "soft," as he beat Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist with a bad-angle shot that was similar to the one Pittsburgh's Chris Conner scored two nights earlier against the Rangers.
Lundqvist (19 saves) had his second straight shaky game, but there really wasn't much he could do on the final three goals of the game.
"I can only talk for myself. I tried to battle and stay in it," said Lundqvist. "Right now, I think too much. I need to play. Parts of the game are pretty good, but I know I have to play better. I am sure we can play better, but it starts with me. I have to play better. Simple as that."
As lopsided as the score was, the Rangers had plenty of chances. Chris Drury had a great chance to tie the game in the second period off a wonderful cross-ice pass from Michael Del Zotto, but Ward answered with a pad save. Artem Anisimov, who was coming off a two-goal game against the Penguins on Monday, was denied by Ward's catching glove while it was still a one-goal game.
Rangers star Marian Gaborik has 29 goals this season, but just 1 in his last 10 games. There was a time this season when he was able to carry the offensively challenged Rangers, but now is not one of those times.
"He is putting pressure on himself," Rangers coach John Tortorella said of Gaborik. "I think he is playing better defensively and trying to play the right way. He will get it turned around."
Perhaps he and the offense will find their games during the Rangers' upcoming three-game road trip through Phoenix, Colorado and Los Angeles. Getting away from Madison Square Garden, where the Rangers are 12-13-4, might be the best the thing for a team that has been under fire of late.
"Stay together," Drury said, a mantra Tortorella was also preaching after the game. "We have a lot of negative stuff coming down on this team right now. During the game, after the game, before the game. I think we have to do the best we can to stay together. We got into this little four-game skid together and we are going to get out of it together.
"It's probably a good time to go on the road. I think you just have to keep things as simple as you can, worry about that first 20 minutes in Phoenix."
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter at: @DLozoNHL