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Rangers take over eighth place by beating Habs 3-1

by Dan Rosen
NEW YORK -- The New York Rangers are heading in the right direction. The Montreal Canadiens are limping toward the finish line.

That's how quickly things can change in a playoff race when you get down to the really short straws.

"It's a fun time of year," Rangers captain Chris Drury said after scoring two goals in a 3-1 win over Montreal at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night.

It may sound ridiculous to say the Rangers, who won for just the second time in their last six games, are headed in the right direction -- just as it may sound harsh to say the Habs are limping with back-to-back losses after a 5-0-1 stretch. But one win and one loss at this time of the year can change everything.

Montreal could have clinched a playoff berth with a win at Madison Square Garden, Instead, the Canadiens face the prospect of needing two points in their next two games -- at first-place Boston on Thursday and at home against Pittsburgh on Saturday.

On the flip side, the Rangers would have stayed in a virtual tie with Florida for eighth if they lost, but the win gave themselves a two-point cushion and an opportunity to clinch a playoff berth Thursday with a victory at home over Philadelphia.

"We're gonna go for it Thursday," goalie Henrik Lundqvist said after making 24 saves for his 36th win of the season. "It's a big game again. We have an opportunity now to play great and go into the playoffs feeling good."

Montreal does, too, but things aren't looking as good as they were, oh, say, Saturday, when the Habs had their full complement of defensemen and everyone in the League buzzing about them after a 6-2 win in Toronto.

The Canadiens lost Andrei Markov and Mathieu Schneider, their point-men on a resurgent power play that was 13-for-35 during their 5-0-1 stretch, to injuries and replacing those two is nearly impossible.

Somehow, Montreal has to figure out a way to get more out of its defense and more sustained pressure in the attacking zone if it wants to assure itself a playoff spot, or at least give itself a puncher's chance should it get there by default.

"There is no sense in panicking now," defenseman Josh Gorges said. "I mean, there are only two games left and we understand that. We understand where we sit and the magnitude of the games coming up, but we can't let these things bother us. You gotta get better from it. You gotta move past it and make sure (Wednesday) we're ready to get back to work and Thursday we're ready to play (in Boston). The games aren't going to get any easier from here on out."

Bob Gainey said his team played a good first period for a road game. But Montreal's General Manager and interim coach admitted the Habs failed to match the Rangers' desperation level in the second period and third periods.

You could chalk that up to injuries and a shaky performance from goalie Carey Price, who was back in net after missing the last three games with flu-like symptoms, but the Rangers still won the puck battles and held pressure in the attacking zone for long stretches.

New York outshot the Canadiens 34-14 over the final 40 minutes and created a fortuitous bounce that resulted in the game-winning goal 2:37 into the second period.

As Price was waiting for the puck to come into the trapezoid area where he could play it, Sean Avery zoomed in and got in between Price and Gorges to shoot it loose. The puck wound up going right in front of the wide-open net, and Nik Antropov, using all of his 6-foot-6 body plus the length of his stick, dove toward the net and poked it in.

"We got into the game well, but in the second period the Rangers really took control of the play, where it was happening, the number of shots on net and the scoring chances," Gainey said. "We were not the only desperate team in the game (Tuesday night) and I think they showed that. They created the lead and made it difficult for us to find time and room and shots in the offensive zone in the second half of the game."

To a man, the Rangers were thrilled with their effort.

Lundqvist talked about how well the defensemen played in clogging the middle and forcing the Canadiens to shoot from the perimeter.

"We played very aggressive and smart," he said.

Offensively, the key guys produced.

As is his modus operandi, Drury came through with a major clutch performance in arguably the Rangers' biggest game of the season to date by scoring a pair of goals on six shots.

"We all know it, when it comes down to big games he steps up," Lundqvist said. "That's why he's one of the best players."

Ryan Callahan created both of Drury's goals by forcing Mike Komisarek to turn the puck over near the corner in the first period and barely staying onside in the second, a move that allowed Markus Naslund and Drury to connect for the insurance goal on a give and go.

"Just little plays like that, he is involved in stuff like that all night long," Rangers coach John Tortorella said of Callahan. "That is his foundation. That is why he is such a good player. He knows how to play away from the puck."

"We're gonna go for it Thursday. It's a big game again. We have an opportunity now to play great and go into the playoffs feeling good." -- Henrik Lundqvist
Callahan had five shots and four hits. Avery was effective with four shots and six hits. Antropov hit the net six of the 10 times he fired the puck toward Price. Naslund and Nikolai Zherdev each had four shots.

"I thought every aspect of our game was great," said Rangers defenseman Paul Mara, who blocked three shots. "We got key goals from key players, Hank came up with big saves and the defense was solid. That's what you need in this League to win."

In Game No. 80, it all came together for the Rangers. The Canadiens have played the same number of games, but they couldn't say the same thing.

The good news for both is by the end of business Thursday they could each find themselves assured of a berth in the playoffs, filling out the final two open spots left in the Eastern Conference.

That's how quickly things change at this time of year.

"I'm not an oddsmaker. I am not a predictor," Tortorella said. "We are going to go to work (Wednesday) and get ready for another game. Wherever it falls, it falls."

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