NEW YORK – Thirty-one seconds into Sunday's night game, Carl Hagelin gave the New York Rangers a lead against the Tampa Bay Lightning that they would not relinquish.
The final score – Rangers 5, Lightning 1 – appears to tell the story of a lopsided victory at Madison Square Garden that pushed the home side above .500 for the first time this season. Hagelin would add another goal; captain Ryan Callahan scored his third; enforcer Arron Asham sniped his first goal as a Ranger, and Rick Nash provided the cherry on top by scoring with 8.3 seconds remaining in regulation.
The one-sided victory, however, may have been Tampa Bay's if a 12-minute stretch in the first period had been just slightly different.
"It was a track meet, and we can't get into a track meet with them," Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "The most important part of the game was (Henrik Lundqvist) in the first period. We're up 2-0 and we're giving up chance after chance. We could've easily have been down 3-2 in that first period."
After Hagelin made it 1-0, the Lightning ripped off five odd-man rushes in the next dozen minutes, but found the back of the net with none of them.
Lundqvist didn't have to make a save on the first two opportunities. Lightning star Steven Stamkos carried the puck down the left win on a 2-on-1, but his shot was deflected to the corner by Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh. Not long after that chance, Vinny Lecavalier had the puck bounce off his stick to foil a clear breakaway attempt.
The turnovers continued for the Rangers, and so did Tampa Bay's glorious scoring chances. This time, Lundqvist answered the bell with a stop at the post of Martin St. Louis on a 3-on-2, then squared up a shot from Cory Conacher on a 2-on-1 sparked by the patience of Lecavalier along the right wing.
Those failed attempts were even more glaring once Callahan intercepted a pass in the neutral zone from Lightning defenseman Matt Carle and beat goaltender Mathieu Garon on a breakaway to put the Rangers ahead 2-0 with 4:47 remaining in the opening period.
Lightning coach Guy Boucher lamented the misses from his team, which has lost four straight while scoring six goals in that stretch.
"This one was no good," Boucher said. "In the first period, we had three 2-on-1s and a breakaway and a back-door open net. That's been us the last four games. We can't capitalize on our scoring chances and the opponent does. They get a breakaway and they score on it.
"What's happening now is it's four games in a row we get those high-quality chances that we don't bury and it's starting to frustrate the guys. That's the thing – it's a test of character, it's a test of patience. … It's weird to say it, but our downfall has been our offense."
Before the Rangers' 4-1 win against the New York Islanders on Thursday, Tortorella said Lundqvist needed to be better. The 2012 Vezina Trophy winner has responded with a 27-save performance in that win and followed it with a 19-save showing against the Lightning.
It's been a struggle for Lundqvist, but he feels he's starting to find his rhythm.
"I'm getting there, technically and mentally," Lundqvist said. "I think I'm starting to get close to where I need to be. We talked about it a couple games ago and the difference is not big. It's just making the extra save when you need to. I felt like I wasn't far away and the last couple games I felt like I did my job."
Hagelin put the Rangers ahead 3-0 at 9:58 of the second period and also ended Garon's night. The sharp-angle shot squeezed through Garon's pads, resulting in Boucher tapping starter Anders Lindback to take over between the pipes.
The 24-year-old had gone 36 games (including playoffs) without a goal before ending the drought in St. Petersburg on Feb. 2 but now has three goals in his past four games – all against Garon and the Lightning.
"It's being in the right spot," said Hagelin, whose first goal Sunday ricocheted off his body and past Garon. "The puck is going in now compared to before. It's not a huge difference. Obviously I didn't get off to a great start, but since then I've had chances and I've been able to put them in and today they went in."
Lecavalier broke the shutout less than five minutes after the goalie change to bring the Lighting to within two goals, banging home a rebound after a disastrous line change that left the Rangers defending a 4-on-1.
Asham put the game out of reach with 7:38 remaining when he ripped a wrist shot off a 2-on-1 that beat Lindback to the glove side. Nash's goal gave the Rangers their most lopsided victory of the season, but it was the goals from the depth lines that left Tortorella feeling good about his team's balance.
"The way the lines are playing right now, we have just have the puck more," said Tortorella, who has gone away from using Nash, Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik as a line. "I think our lines are a bit stiffer the way they are right through the lineup. Our fourth line gets nine or 10 minutes tonight and they deserve it, they played well. The last couple games have been OK, so hopefully we continue to build and get better."
The Rangers were anchored by the return of defenseman Dan Girardi, who missed the previous two games with a lower-body injury. He logged 22:10, had two assists and was a plus-4.
"I think we really need to bunch some wins together here – not win a couple, lose a couple," Girardi said. "Now we have to create some distance from the .500 record we had before and just keep putting wins together. That's how we're going to have to jump up the standings."