-- Capturing first place in the Eastern Conference on Dec. 26 carries a similar value to the New York Rangers
as moving into first place in the Atlantic Division did three days earlier.
"It's a good feeling, no question," said Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist
after his 28-save shutout in a 3-0 victory against the New York Islanders
on Monday night at Madison Square Garden. "But it doesn't mean a lot."
With their fifth straight victory, one that came in part because of a two-goal effort from rookie Carl Hagelin
, the Rangers have 48 points in 34 games, one more point in one more game than the defending Stanley Cup-champion Boston Bruins.
"Doesn't mean anything to me," coach John Tortorella said. "How many games have we played? I don't care about Boston or anybody else. We haven't even gone halfway through the year."
Tortorella instead praised the mindset of his team, one of the youngest in the NHL that has matured by leaps and bounds this season.
"We don't want to get too far ahead of ourselves," Tortorella said, "because it gets away from you, as far as the details of the game."
Tortorella wasn't happy with the timing of the NHL's two-day holiday break. It came when the Rangers were rolling. They won three games in four days and capped the stretch by beating the Philadelphia Flyers on Friday in a preview of the 2012 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic to move into first place in their division.
It wasn't a slow start as much as it was an uneven 60 minutes that gave the Rangers problems against the Islanders. There were times when the Rangers controlled the play but numerous breakdowns led to a bevy quality scoring chances for the Islanders.
During the second period, Lundqvist bailed out the Rangers several times during a 46-second stretch in which he made six saves. He made a sliding right-pad stop on Tim Wallace
after making an initial save on a long shot by Marty Reasoner
. Before Lundqvist could catch his breath, he had to make two more difficult saves on Matt Moulson
and John Tavares
About a minute before that cluster, Lundqvist stopped PA Parenteau
from point-blank range with the Rangers shorthanded and stretched to make a save on a rebound try from Frans Nielsen
"Our game tonight, I thought we had some really good minutes and we had some brutal minutes," Tortorella said. "When we had some brutal minutes, Hank was outstanding. We have some work to do as a club as far as consistency. We have some guys chipping in, but we have to get some other guys going also."
The two Rangers who provided that consistency on Monday were Hagelin and Del Zotto, who assisted on both of the 23-year-old Swede's goals and improved to plus-25 on the season, the second-best mark in the NHL's behind the plus-26 of Boston's Tyler Seguin, with a plus-3 effort against the Islanders.
Del Zotto was steady in his own end, but it was his individual effort on Hagelin's first goal that stole the show.
The puck squirted to the left circle, where it became a race between Del Zotto and Nielsen. In a do-or-die move, Del Zotto gathered the puck, toe-dragged it around Nielsen, and fired a shot on Islanders goaltender Evgeni Nabokov
. Rangers captain Ryan Callahan
jammed the rebound loose, allowing Hagelin to bank the puck off Nabokov and into the net to make it 1-0 Rangers at 5:14 of the second period.
"I saw him charging at me and I thought I wouldn't be able to get a shot through," Del Zotto said of the genesis of his move on Nielsen. "It was an all-or-nothing play. I made one of those earlier in the year and the coaching staff wasn't too happy with me. I'm glad it worked out there. It stopped me from being yelled at at that bench."
Del Zotto and Callahan teamed up again in the third period to set up Hagelin's second goal of the game and sixth of the season with a give-and-go play along the left-wing wall. Del Zotto finished it by hitting Hagelin in the slot for a one-timer that made it 2-0 at 6:32.
Hagelin's line with Callahan and Brad Richards
epitomized Tortorella's message about playing great at times and poorly at others Monday.
"I think we played pretty good today," Hagelin said. "Maybe not the best first period but then in the second we created some chances, and in the third we had a good run. Both of those goals were just me kind of coasting toward the net while the other guys were doing a good job. I came in late and found the puck."
Islanders coach Jack Capuano -- as he has done at times this season -- opted to pull Nabokov for the extra attacker with a little more than 3 minutes left in regulation. It didn't work, as the Rangers' Marian Gaborik
hit the empty net for his League-leading 22nd goal of the season.
It was a tough loss for Nabokov, who didn't get much support while making 28 saves.
"I thought Nabby played well," said Capuano, whose team now resides in last place in the Eastern Conference. "He gave us a chance."
From here, the Rangers will play at Washington on Wednesday and at Florida on Friday before facing the Flyers on Jan. 2 at Citizens Bank Park in the Winter Classic.
The Rangers have been without three key members of their defense this season -- Marc Staal
(concussion) has been out since training camp, Michael Sauer
(concussion) has been out for three weeks and Steve Eminger
(shoulder) will miss two months. Staal was cleared for contact Monday, but his status for the Winter Classic is in doubt.
As long as the Rangers continue finding ways to win despite those injuries, there's no need for Staal to rush back.
"I think there's great depth in the team," Hagelin said. "There's a lot of guys out and it shows that the organization is doing a great job preparing guys for this. It's fun, I think we're all enjoying it. We were all brought into the system and every game we just keep playing the same way."
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo