NEW YORK – The New York Rangers’ stay atop the Metropolitan Division might only last 24 hours, but they moved past the New York Islanders and into first place with a 4-3 victory against the Arizona Coyotes at Madison Square Garden on Thursday.
Lee Stempniak and Chris Kreider scored two goals each, and goalie Cam Talbot made 37 saves for his eighth win in 11 starts since Henrik Lundqvist was forced out of the lineup because of a vascular injury.
The Rangers and Islanders each have 82 points, but the Rangers are in first place because they have played fewer games (two). The Islanders can move back into first place Friday, when they play at home against the Calgary Flames. The Rangers don't play again until Saturday against the Philadelphia Flyers.
"There's pride obviously, and you want to do well in your division, but I don't think that's our focus right now," Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh said of being in first place. "We can't feel good about ourselves just because we're there now. We've gotta continue to fine tune because it only gets tougher down the road here."
Perhaps more important than where the Rangers are in the standings is that they again found a way to win when they didn't play their best for 60 minutes. They were down 3-1 after the first period after giving up two power-play goals, including one on a 5-on-3, to Arizona forward Sam Gagner. Mark Arcobello scored 41 seconds into the game on an uncontested shot.
Stempniak scored 5:33 into the second period and Kreider scored a power-play goal to tie the game 3-3 with 11.3 seconds remaining in the second. Stempniak gave New York a 4-3 lead with 2:14 remaining in the third period, and the Rangers killed a 6-on-4 power play for the Coyotes in the final 1:21 of the game.
New York (38-16-6) is 8-0-2 in its past 10 games and 9-1-2 without Lundqvist.
"For us it's the maturity of a team that knows we weren't good enough, knew we needed to be better, and didn't really panic," Stempniak said. "It seems we took it a shift at a time, took the game over and we were able to find a way at the end."
The Coyotes (20-35-7) are the exact opposite of the Rangers. They have lost eight consecutive games in regulation. Arizona has been outscored 80-39 in the third period this season, including 8-0 in their past three games, but its problems Thursday started before the third.
The sequence of events that led to Kreider's game-tying power-play goal all fell in the Rangers' favor and left goalie Mike Smith and Arizona coach Dave Tippett confused and angry.
It started with 21 seconds remaining, when Rangers center Derick Brassard wasn't called for what could have been a double-minor for high sticking Arizona defenseman Andrew Campbell. Brassard's stick got up into Campbell's face and drew blood.
As Campbell sat hunched over on his knees holding his face, Rangers forward Rick Nash played the puck with a high stick in the slot, resulting in a faceoff in New York's zone with 18.8 seconds remaining. At this point Campbell went to the bench for repairs and Tippett let the officials know how he felt about the non-call.
"They say all four of them missed it, which I find hard to fathom," Tippett said. "It should've been a double-minor. It doesn't get called. It comes back down; they're still on the power play."
Coyotes center Antoine Vermette won the faceoff back to defenseman Connor Murphy, but he couldn't hold the puck in at the right point, allowing a breakaway for Kreider. Smith made the initial save, but Kreider kept with the play, found the puck back on his stick immediately, and used his backhand to score.
Smith reacted by smashing his stick across the left post, breaking it in half. He received a minor penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct, putting the Rangers on the power play, with 1:49 of that time running into the third period. They didn't score on the power play, but they held the puck in the zone and generated five shot attempts over the final 1:37 of the power play.
"So really, it’s a six-minute turnaround in the game," Tippett said. "and that's a big factor in the game."
Smith said his anger wasn't directed at the officials for not calling the high stick, but instead at his team for not making the proper plays.
"We constantly turn pucks over and against good teams you're going to get it jammed back down your throat," Smith said. "It had nothing to do with the call. We continued to shoot ourselves in the foot. At that point it's a 3-2 lead, under a minute left in the period, faceoff in their end, and somehow they get a breakaway. You have to know what time it is in games, what the score is, and that determines how you play and what kind of chances you take. We continue to make tough decisions at tough times in games and it ends up in the back our net."
He'd only get angrier because it was an Arizona zone turnover that led to Stempniak's game-winner.
Arcobello essentially passed the puck to Rangers center Kevin Hayes in Arizona's defensive zone. Hayes found Stempniak in the slot, Smith made the save on his first attempt, but Stempniak scored on the rebound.
Hayes had two assists, giving him 11 points in the past 11 games.
"Kevin put it right on my tape and I had enough time fortunately to get the rebound," Stempniak said. "The first one I didn't raise enough, it went off his pad, but I had enough time and a lot of net to shoot at on the second one to get it over his pad."
The Coyotes had a power play with 1:21 remaining, when Martin St. Louis was called for hooking. They made it a 6-on-4 by pulling Smith, but Talbot made three saves in the final seconds to preserve the win.
"A little too close for comfort but it speaks volumes about the leadership and character in the room," Kreider said.