-- The Rangers returned home 11 days ago after a 20,000-mile trip around the globe looking like a group of players who still had their heads in the clouds. Two losses, each dreadful in its own way, started a six-game homestand in a renovated building designed to provide the team with a bigger advantage and more comfort.
Four momentum-building wins in a row at Madison Square Garden later, and the Rangers are suddenly the hottest team in the League.
scored twice and added an assist while Martin Biron
earned his first shutout in more than two years as the Rangers ended their six-game stretch at home with a 3-0 victory against the Winnipeg Jets
on Sunday night. Derek Stepan
added a goal and an assist to help the somewhat ragged Rangers win their third game in four nights.
After two-plus weeks in Europe playing exhibition games against club teams and a pair of NHL games in Stockholm, the Rangers received a week off before a road game against the rival Islanders and four games in Western Canada. When the smoke cleared, the Rangers were 3-2-2 before dropping their home opener to the Maple Leafs and squandering a three-goal lead in a shootout loss to the Senators two nights later.
Eight days after that, the Rangers are 7-3-3 and four points behind the NHL-leading Pittsburgh Penguins in the Atlantic with two games in hand.
"It showed some resilience and heart," said Biron, who has won two of the four games during this streak. "You lose a couple tough ones in the first two games here and you come back with four good wins. Being able to do it the way we have, playing solid defensively, special teams are picking it up for us, and being able to use a lot of the guys today -- I mean, we used pretty much everybody out there.
"It's hard when you go on the road for that amount of time and come back home. Sometimes there's a letdown, a feeling of, 'OK, we're at home, it's going to be a lot easier.' There were no feelings of that. There was a lot of hard work and it paid off in the end."
The Rangers' power play went 5-for-31 (16.1 percent) during the homestand after going just 3-for-28 (10.7 percent) in the seven road games that started the season. It's not exactly converting at the same rate as the 1980s Edmonton Oilers, but it made a difference against the Jets.
After a sluggish, scoreless first period from both teams -- the Jets were also playing their third game in four nights -- the Rangers converted during a 5-on-4 midway through the second period to make it 1-0. Stepan finished a perfect pass from Michael Del Zotto
that touched Gaborik on the way through the penalty-killing box at 10:01.
Stepan added an assist later in the game, giving him 2 goals and 4 assists on the homestand. Through the first seven games of this season, the 21-year-old had just 1 assist.
"When you look at Step, his game is really stepping out…no pun intended there," Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "He's seeing the ice. The game is clearer to him. You can tell as far as some of the plays he's making. Step is just allowing himself to play. I think he just feels more confident with the puck."
That confidence showed on Gaborik's first goal of the night, which came at 8:31 of the third period after the Rangers failed to convert during an extended 5-on-3 early in the third period. Jets goaltender Ondrej Pavelec
, who was stellar from start to finish with 24 saves, made four difficult shorthanded saves to keep the Jets within a goal.
But he was helpless to stop a 2-on-1 rush that was highlighted by Stepan's lightning-quick pass to a streaking Gaborik, who ripped home his sixth goal of the season to make it 2-0. Gaborik added another with 1.1 seconds remaining with Pavelec on the bench for an extra attacker.
Along with Artem Anisimov
, who started the 2-on-1 break and had two assists while playing left wing, the line of Anisimov-Stepan-Gaborik combined for 7 points and 9 shots.
"I feel like we all create space for each other and that's the biggest thing," Stepan said. "Gaby, the way he is, I don't even know how he does some of the things he does. And me and Artie, we're finding ourselves, finding space and creating space. The three of us have good chemistry and with that chemistry, it's awesome."
Biron had to make only 23 saves to get his second win of the season against the Jets and improve to 3-0. At 34 years old, he's not taking any shutout for granted.
"I used to play it down, but not anymore," said Biron, whose last shutout came as a member of the Islanders when he made 38 saves in a 5-0 win against the Buffalo Sabres on Oct. 31, 2009. "They're hard to come by in this League so when you have one, you have to enjoy it very much."
Both teams had high praise of Pavelec, who made 9 of his 27 saves while the Jets were killing penalties. His best save came with the Jets shorthanded. Rangers captain Ryan Callahan
sliced through a pair of defenders for what would've been a highlight-reel goal, but Pavelec answered with a blocker save when it was still a scoreless game.
"I thought Pavelec did a heck of a job getting us in the game and keeping us in the game," Jets coach Claude Noel said. "We looked tired. We didn't have much energy. I think our team wore down from back-to-back games."
The Rangers didn't let their Saturday game turn into an excuse to lose Sunday. They'll be rewarded with a day off Monday in advance of a trip to Ottawa to face the Senators on Wednesday night.
"We're coming. It's just trying to be consistent," Tortorella said when asked if the team is starting to look like the tough, grinding team that reached the playoffs last season. "We have to try to establish ourselves. I think is the start for us."
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo