NEW YORK -- After going more than two full games without a goal, the New York Rangers appeared to be back on track after scoring on the first shift of the game. But it took a huge performance from the team's captain to rally back for a big win Monday.
Derek Stepan scored two goals, including the game-winner, and captain Ryan Callahan collected four points as the Rangers beat the Winnipeg Jets 4-2 at Madison Square Garden.
Callahan and Rick Nash also scored for the Rangers and Henrik Lundqvist made 26 saves for the win. Nik Antropov and Zach Bogosian provided the Jets’ scoring, while Ondrej Pavelec finished with 31 stops.
The win pulled the eighth-place Rangers within two points of the New Jersey Devils for seventh place in the Eastern Conference. The Rangers own a game in hand on their cross-Hudson River rivals. Despite the loss, the Jets maintained their four-point lead in the Southeast Division over the Carolina Hurricanes, who hold three games in hand.
New York appeared to overcome its recent scoring futility when Stepan took a feed from Callahan and beat Pavelec just 19 seconds into the contest. But that momentum wouldn't last, as Antropov replied 56 seconds later, finding the puck alone in front of the net before beating Lundqvist between the legs.
"It was huge [scoring early]. Obviously we didn't want to give one up that quick," said Nash. "It seems like we're always giving up too many chances. Tonight we kept it simple and buried our chances."
Although it took more than seven minutes for the Rangers to record a second shot after their early goal, Stepan made a big defensive play midway through the period, stopping a shot by Kyle Wellwood as Lundqvist lay out of position. It was yet another big moment for the line of Stepan, Callahan and Nash, who combined for eight points and a plus-11 rating.
"[Callahan] had a heck of a game. He seemed to step up at the right time for us," Stepan said. "I've said it from day one, Rick is a special player. It makes my job easy building chemistry with those two."
That chemistry proved vital when the Jets took a 2-1 lead despite losing Grant Clitsome after the defenseman took a stick to the eye early in the first and did not return. With just over seven minutes to play in the opening period, Zach Bogosian's point shot deflected past Lundqvist, marking just the third time all season that the Jets have scored multiple goals in the first period.
New York came out firing in the second, out-shooting Winnipeg 10-1 to open the period and mounting a ferocious fore-check that wore down the Jets' depleted defense.
"The problem if you play with five D is you're going to wear down if you spend a lot of time in your own zone," Jets coach Claude Noel said. "It's not like [the Rangers] don't know what they're doing. They're going to look at getting pucks to our goal line and wear our D down."
When the Rangers needed it most, they got a highlight-reel play from Callahan that tied the game. With Dan Girardi in the box for tripping and Mats Zuccarello having just finished serving a high-sticking penalty, Callahan came in from the right side and deked Pavelec before backhanding the puck into the net to give the Rangers’ captain his first goal in nine games.
"Lately, I haven't been putting up points. I haven't been contributing the way I want to," Callahan said. "I wanted to bring some energy tonight."
Lundqvist kept the score tied late in the period when he made a remarkable toe save on Bryan Little and the Rangers never looked back.
"As far as Ryan Callahan, that's a huge play in the game. Not only killing the penalties, but [having] the wherewithal to keep the puck and score a big goal," Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "I thought we took over the game from there."
Stepan notched the game-winner 5:46 into the third when he found a rebound off Anton Stralman's shot and gave New York a lead it would not relinquish. Just seconds before the goal, Bogosian was momentarily hobbled after taking a Callahan shot off the foot, giving Stepan just a little extra space beside the net.
Nash put the game away with 6:53 remaining in the period, pivoting with the puck at the left faceoff circle before notching his 13th of the season. It was a big goal for the All-Star, who came into the game with three goals in his previous 11 games; well off his early-season scoring pace.
Even before scoring, Nash showed signs of life playing alongside Stepan and Callahan. His finest scoring chance may have come three minutes into the third, when he stole the puck at the blue line and went to his backhand, only to be stopped by Pavelec.
"It felt good. There was some chemistry out there," Nash said. "When we did get the opportunities, we finished. Games before, we couldn't find the net."
The Rangers scoring slump may be over, but their path to the postseason doesn't get any easier. They next play a home-and-home series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, who with a win Tuesday against the Buffalo Sabres will face off against the Rangers on Wednesday night just one win shy of tying the NHL record of 17 straight wins, set by the Penguins in 1992-93.
"We've been struggling, it's no secret. This is big for us. We have to continue and keep rolling," Stepan said. "When you're struggling to score goals, you just try to go game-by-game. Just learn from our last game and get ready for the next one, because they keep coming. The schedule doesn't get any easier."