-- The Philadelphia Flyers
were playing on the road for the ninth time in their last 10 games Sunday night, so they had every reason to look weary or sluggish against the New York Rangers
But the Flyers came out early with spring in their step, scoring the first three goals before hanging on for dear life during the final 20 minutes in a 3-2 victory at Madison Square Garden.
The Flyers wrapped the 10-game stretch, which featured a home game against the New Jersey Devils, 7-3-0 overall and 6-3-0 away from Wells Fargo Center. They sit atop the Eastern Conference with 63 points, three more than their Atlantic Division rivals, the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"We're pretty happy with that," said Flyers goaltender Brian Boucher, who made 34 saves, including 19 in a perfect second period. "This was a big game. We wanted to get it and we got it, so now we're going home for some games and hopefully we can keep the ball rolling."
The Rangers were playing for the second night in a row, and the Flyers jumped on them early.
While parked in the slot, Jeff Carter redirected a blast by defenseman Matt Carle
that eluded Rangers backup goaltender Martin Biron
, who stopped 24 shots in place of Henrik Lundqvist
. The goal at 6:14 of the first period was Carter's 19th of the season.
Ville Leino scored his 11th of the season from the identical location. He took a feed from Andrej Meszaros
and snapped a wrister that beat Biron and put the Flyers up 2-0 with 5:06 left in the period.
A shorthanded goal by Mike Richards 4:25 into the second period proved to be the winner. Claude Giroux
feathered a saucer pass directly onto the tape of Richards, who finished the 2-on-1 rush by ripping a shot over Biron's catching glove.
The goal was the result of a turnover by the Rangers' Derek Stepan
, who took responsibility for the gaffe.
"It is something I will learn from," Stepan said. "I am definitely not happy about it. I made a mistake and it ends up in the back of the net and unfortunately it ends up being the game winner."
Four minutes after the goal by Richards, a melee seemed to give the Rangers life.
The Rangers' Brandon Prust
squared off with Darroll Powe, who was unwilling to drop the gloves with his team up 3-0. Flyers defenseman Matt Walker
, however, was ready to oblige before he was knocked down from behind by Rangers forward Kris Newbury
That sparked a brawl that ended with the Rangers' Sean Avery
dropping Flyers defenseman Matt Carle
with a right hand. It was Carle's first NHL fight, and one he won't likely soon forget since Avery continued to reign blows while he was covering up on the ice.
"I don't know if I'd really call it a fight," said Carle, who had a positive attitude about the bout.
"I really didn't know what was going on. The scrum happened and he kind of came in and tied me up and had my jersey up over my head. Next thing you know I was getting punched in the face. Then I was on the ice."
Asked about the punches Avery delivered when the fight was over, Carle said, "That's the kind of player he is."
The brawl appeared to spark the Rangers, who spent a better part of the second period peppering Boucher. They finished with 19 shots, many of them quality chances, but they were all turned aside by Boucher.
The effort paid off midway through the third period, as Wojtek Wolski
and Stepan scored 2:44 apart to make it a 3-2 game.
Both goals were set up by Mats Zuccarello
. Wolski scored from a bad angle, but Stepan converted a beautiful feed from behind the net to set up a dramatic final eight minutes of a game that looked over after two periods.
Boucher stood his ground when it mattered most. Brandon Dubinsky
had a great chance to tie it from the slot in the final minutes, but his shot went wide.
"They are a top team in the Eastern Conference," Dubinsky said. "We can't stop them a 3-0 lead and expect to win the game. We had an opportunity to tie it, but at the end of the night, we have to get it done for 60 minutes."
"I thought the last four or five minutes, we tightened it down," said Flyers coach Peter Laviolette. "We did what we needed in order to win."
Rangers sniper Marian Gaborik
was held without a goal for the eighth straight game, and coach John Tortorella appeared to be fed up. Gaborik was on the bench for much of the second and third periods and played a season-low 12:45, not counting the game against the Toronto Maple Leafs in which he was injured.
"We need production," Tortorella said. "We've got guys grinding their (butts) off, developing scoring chances. We need some our skill guys to score a goal for us."
The Flyers will play 8 of their next 10 games at home. They're happy with where they are in the standings, but Boucher knows a letdown of any kind can prove costly in the standings.
"Things are so tight, things can change in 3-4 games," Boucher said. "We're happy with where we're at, but we know there's still a lot of work to be done. We can't sit back. We need to keep pressing, keep going and finish strong here before the All-Star break."
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo