NEW YORK -- The Rangers were tired, not at their best and getting pushed around in their own building throughout the second period by a hungry Boston Bruins team that was constantly on the cusp of taking the lead.
Instead of wilting, the Rangers weathered the storm and used an inspired third period to win 4-3 Sunday afternoon at Madison Square Garden.
Marian Gaborik's 31st goal of the season put the Rangers ahead 3-2 early in the third period, but David Krejci answered for the Bruins with 8:18 remaining. Thirty-nine seconds later, Derek Stepan scored the winner in the Rangers' third game in less than four days.
The victory moved the Rangers into the top spot in the NHL standings and gave them a 12-point lead on the Bruins and 10-point lead on the Pittsburgh Penguins for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
It wasn't pretty, but it made the win more satisfying for coach John Tortorella.
"I feel even better about it. I do," Tortorella said. "We're playing our third game in two-and-a-half days. They're not always going to be pretty. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the guys in there, how hard they had to work just to get something accomplished and score one more than they did."
The Rangers jumped to a 2-0 lead a little more than 6 minutes into the contest on the strength of goals by Ruslan Fedotenko and Carl Hagelin. Fedotenko's goal was a deflection of an Anton Stralman shot that slipped past a screened Tim Thomas, while Hagelin's goal was the result of a mix of chaos and pure speed.
Brad Richards had the puck in his own zone and fired it all the way down the ice. Hagelin, winner of the fastest skater competition at this year's All-Star Game, raced past the Boston defense to corral the puck behind the net. He tossed the puck toward the crease, where it banked off Bruins defenseman Greg Zanon and into the net with a little bit of help from a hard-charging Brandon Dubinsky.
"I was pretty sure someone was going to go toward the net there," Hagelin said. "I thought one of our guys would beat one of their D, so I decided to throw it in there. Usually good things happen when you throw stuff like that, especially when everyone is crashing toward the net."
"I just see that he's going to beat everybody," Richards said. "We know that he has great speed when he takes off. It's up to me to put it in an area. You never know how the boards are going to react, but it came out nicely to him. His speed creates that stuff."
Bruins coach Claude Julien called timeout after that goal, and at least for a little while, it had the desired effect.
Benoit Pouliot capitalized on a Stralman turnover to make it 2-1 just 1:42 later. Stralman's break-out pass was deflected, and the puck came to rest for a one-timer from the slot by Pouilot, who ripped it past goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.
The Bruins controlled the play territorially for the final 10 minutes of the first period and almost all of the second period. Bruins forward Jordan Caron tied the score at 2-2 at the 1:40 mark of the second period, intercepting a long pass by Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi and ripping a slap shot past Lundqvist to tie it.
Due to a broken piece of glass behind Lundqvist's net, the final 2:53 of the first period was played after the normal 17-minute intermission. The teams switched ends at the conclusion of the period and started the second period right away.
Through two periods, the Bruins held a 24-11 edge in shots and a 54-26 advantage in shot attempts. The only thing preventing the Rangers from being blown out was Lundqvist, who made 30 saves in all and 22 through the first two periods.
It was reminiscent of the team's previous meeting in Boston on Feb. 14. The Rangers won 3-0 but were outshot 42-20 by a dominant Bruins team.
"I think in Boston, we had more energy, more jump to our game," Lundqvist said. "Here, it felt like we were a little tired and had a tough time in the second (period). In the third, we regained some energy from scoring that third goal. It feels like we can answer back a little more when we play Boston. We answered back. That's what it comes down to. When do we play well, we try to cash in, and I think we did in the third."
The Rangers had just six shots in the third period, but two found the back of the net.
Gaborik's goal, which gave Richards his second assist of the game, came seconds after he was stopped by Thomas in a 1-on-1 battle from the slot. But Richards stayed with it, getting the puck to Gaborik in front for the tiebreaking goal.
David Krejci made it 3-3 with 8:18 remaining, banging home a pass from Milan Lucic to finish a 3-on-2 rush led by Tyler Seguin.
But Stepan answered right away, beating Thomas with a wrister from the top of the left circle. Thomas finished with 13 saves on 17 shots.
Lundqvist wasn't one of the game's Three Stars, but he was perhaps the biggest reason the Rangers were in a position to win the game in the third period.
"To be honest with you, we relied a little bit on goaltending," Richards said. "They're a good team. They have a good game plan against us, spreading us out in our zone, knowing that we collapse. We might have been a little tired today, but we found a way in the third to get some energy and score some goals."
Despite falling to 0-2-1 against the Rangers, Julien was pleased with his team's showing.
"We were a pretty dominant team today in my mind," Julien said. "We spent a lot of time in the offensive zone and that's what matters. So maybe on the scoreboard it might not have been a victory, but I think mentally our guys still feel pretty confident with the game we played today."
The Rangers feel like they can be better, but that's how they feel after every game, according to Girardi.
"There's always something you don't do right," Girardi said. "They're the defending Stanley Cup champions, they're a good team. I think we need to do a better job of closing in on the corners and getting out of our zone clean."
With such a massive lead in the standings, the only enemy the Rangers may have to worry about in their final 18 games is complacency. Richards said that's something they've been dealing with for a while and it won't be a problem coming down the stretch.
"We could've done that for alittle while now and put ourselves back in a battle," Richards said. "We've been aware of that. It can still happen very quickly. A bad week with the amount of hockey we're playing -- we're playing pretty much four games a week in March (17 games total) -- you put in a bad week of work and you don't know what can happen. Pittsburgh is going to be winning from here on out, they're a good team.
"We've got to keep doing what we're doing. We put ourselves in a situation and we want to continue to be there and grow on it. We got to accept that responsibility now."
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