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Rangers stay hot, hang on against Blackhawks

by Dan Rosen

NEW YORK -- The New York Rangers were looking for a strong start to their post-Olympic push toward the Stanley Cup Playoffs. A win against the defending Stanley Cup champions certainly qualifies.

Rick Nash's 19th goal of the season with 4:07 left was the difference Thursday at Madison Square Garden, where the Rangers held on for a 2-1 victory against the Chicago Blackhawks in the first game for either team since Feb. 7.

Peter Regin scored his first goal for Chicago with 11.6 seconds left to go, but New York goalie Cam Talbot shut the door in the waning seconds, stoning Marian Hossa and Patrick Kane at the doorstep with his left pad as time expired. Talbot finished with 31 saves in his first win since Jan. 18.

The Rangers are 11-4-0 since winning at Chicago on Jan. 8. They are 6-1-0 in their past seven games and have a three-point cushion over the Philadelphia Flyers for second place in the Metropolitan Division. New York plays at Philadelphia on Saturday before hosting the Boston Bruins on Sunday.

"First game at home after the break, Chicago, it was important to win," Rangers defenseman Marc Staal said. "Obviously the ending of the game is not the way we wanted to do it, but I thought we played pretty well, pretty smart with the puck for most of the game. It was big for us just to get that. We were playing so well going into the break, and having that feeling come back to the room I think is pretty big."

The Blackhawks have to try to find that winning feeling in the frigid Windy City air Saturday night, when they play the Pittsburgh Penguins at Soldier Field in the 2014 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series (8 p.m. ET, NBC).

They'll have to be crisper than they were Thursday, when they were rusty and out of sync. Chicago looked particularly sleepy on the power play; it went 0-for-3 with five shots on goal, none on two of its opportunities. New York's first goal was off a rare defensive-zone turnover by captain Jonathan Toews.

"I thought we were a little off, our timing, some of our passing and maybe looking for one extra play," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. "Certainly we need to be sharper than that."

Quenneville didn't seem surprised his team struggled. Nine of Chicago's 18 skaters played in the 2014 Sochi Olympics; six played in the gold-medal game Sunday. Patrick Sharp, who won a gold medal with Canada, mentioned Thursday morning he was trying to get over jet lag from the trip home earlier in the week.

The Rangers didn't do the Blackhawks any favors by clogging the middle of the ice, particularly in the first two periods. New York's game plan was to essentially play a smart road game at home so it could work out its own kinks after a 20-day layoff.

"We're playing against the Stanley Cup champions and we're playing against the No. 1 offensive in the League; I believe that trading chances is probably not the way to go," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. "We were really solid. We really backchecked hard. Their shift lengths were good, so we were able to keep a smart, high pace, and we didn't give them very much in the first two periods."

New York gave Chicago so little it looked like Derick Brassard's goal 10:14 into the first period might stand up.

J.T. Miller, who was in the lineup for Mats Zuccarello, New York's leading scorer with 43 points who was injured playing for Norway at the Olympics, refused to give up on the puck despite losing it deep in the attacking zone. He came from behind Toews and knocked the puck away as the Chicago captain was trying to skate it out of the defensive zone.

Miller hit the puck toward the left-wing wall, where Benoit Pouliot picked it up. Pouliot moved into the corner before finding Brassard at the left hash marks. Chicago goalie Corey Crawford stopped Brassard's initial shot, but the rebound was loose in the slot at the feet of defenseman Nick Leddy. Brassard was able to get to it first, and his shot from in close didn't miss. It was Brassard's 12th goal of the season and fourth in five games.

"I just kind of back-pressured and the guy was standing there so I tried to lift the stick," Miller said. "Pouliot and [Brassard] took care of the rest."

The Rangers were inches from making it 2-0 five minutes later, but Brad Richards' shot off the rush hit the crossbar. The Blackhawks got five shots on goal during a power play late in the first period, but Talbot stopped them all, including a wraparound attempt from Toews.

New York appeared in complete control once Nash beat Crawford with a low, blocker-side wrist shot at 15:53 of the third period, but even on a night when they look out of sorts, it's never a good idea to count out the defending champs.

"We've had some crazy finishes," Quenneville said.

Regin, acquired Feb. 6 in a trade with the New York Islanders, beat Talbot off a give-and-go with Ben Smith with 11.6 seconds left to give Chicago a chance. Toews won the faceoff and the Blackhawks quickly got the puck in front of the net, but Talbot made two bang-bang saves on Hossa and Kane to preserve the victory.

"Maybe 2-0 would have been better, but a win is a win," Nash said. "It's two points at the end of the day. I don't think anybody expected it to be that tight [at the end], but it's a huge win, huge two points."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

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