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|Rangers center Blair Betts celebrates his goal at 0:47 of Monday night's third period, giving the Blueshirts a 1-0 lead.
Just how hot are the New York Rangers right now?
Consider this: Just under a month ago, the Blueshirts' playoff hopes appeared to be fading. Now, following Monday night's 2-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins at Madison Square Garden, the Rangers are up to seventh place in the conference and could be playing for the No. 6 spot as early as Wednesday night.
With a 7-1-3 record over their last 11 games since the NHL trade deadline, the Blueshirts have been playing what is far and away their finest hockey of the 2006-07 season -- peaking at precisely the right time as far as the approaching playoffs are concerned.
Their last two wins have been defensive masterpieces. They crushed Boston 7-0 on St. Patrick's Day and followed that up Monday with an even more impressive -- though much closer -- victor over what had been the conference's best team for its past 10 games.
Monday's game-winning goal came in surprise but nevertheless thrilling fashion, as Jaromir Jagr's centering pass from the right side was knocked in by Pittsburgh defenseman Rob Scuderi, coming back to protect the crease area on the play.
With the shaft of his stick, Scuderi accidentally swept the puck underneath under Penguins goaltender Jocelyn Thibault, who desperately fell on it after it had already crossed the goal line with 33.8 seconds remaining in the game.
Jagr's goal required a video review to confirm what both the referee and goal judge had initially indicated was a legitimate goal.
"You are never sure," said Jagr of the review. "I thought it was in, but I wasn't 100 percent sure. I got the puck from (Marek) Malik and tried to drive wide and go underneath. Before I got the puck to (Michael) Nylander they accidently put the puck in."
It was a tough way for Thibault's night to end, particularly since the Penguins netminder had been sensational with 40 saves in the game. But the goal was in many ways a karmic payback for a similar win by the Penguins back on Oct. 12 at MSG. In that game, Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby had scored the winner on a pass that deflected in off a Rangers defenseman's stick with only 3.3 seconds to go in regulation.
"If you keep getting shots on net, keep working hard and pushing forward that is when you create breaks and you start to get lucky," said Rangers head coach Tom Renney. "They were a bit of a tired team on the other side tonight. Having said that, we had a few people out of our lineup that may have equalized that a bit. But I think we have been a pretty solid team defensively for quite some time now."
In defeating Pittsburgh, the Rangers put away a team that had won five straight, a team that had gone 8-1-1 in its last 10, and a team that was challenging for the Atlantic Division lead, just two points behind New Jersey. Not only did the Rangers beat the Pens, they outshot them by a whopping 42-22 margin and Pittsburgh's their young phenoms, Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, look somewhat lost on the Garden ice.
The Blueshirts did all this with a lineup that included five rookies and was missing five injured regulars in Brendan Shanahan, Marcel Hossa, Fedor Tyutin, Karel Rachunek and Martin Straka. While Shanahan could be back as early as Wednesday night for Philadelphia's visit to The Garden, the other four won't be back so soon. The way the Rangers are playing as a team, however, all of them can take their time getting healthy.
Now in seventh place ahead of defending Stanley Cup champion Carolina with nine games remaining in their season, the Rangers can move into sixth with the combination of a Tampa Bay loss to the Islanders on Tuesday and their own victory over the Flyers on Wednesday. By winning on Monday, the Rangers also inflated their cushion over teams outside the playoff picture to three points.
Blueshirts goaltender Henrik Lundqvist had a relatively easy night with 21 saves, just missing back-to-back shutouts for the first time in his NHL career. Lundqvist's shutout string of 114:18 finally ended when Pittsburgh's Michel Ouellet capped off a heads-up play by Erik Christensen. Passing up a shot, Christensen sent the puck down to Lundqvist's doorstep, where Ouellet charged in for the game-tying goal with 5:42 remaining.
"It feels really good to finally beat Pittsburgh," said Lundqvist, the game's No. 2 star behind Jagr. "We had a couple of tough losses in overtime against them. It is a big win for us. It feels good to be in the middle of the race. Every game means a lot, so it is fun to play. We played a great game tonight."
What took the pressure off Lundqvist on Monday was a tremendous defensive effort that denied Pittsburgh from setting up anything in the slot or near the net -- outside of the one chance manufactured by Christensen. Even when the Pens had golden opportunities to score on power plays, the Blueshirts managed to get their sticks in the way, keeping the puck far away from the net.
"They (Pittsburgh) are a tricky team," Lundqvist said. "They don't shoot as much but they have really skilled players. (Sidney) Crosby, of course, and a couple of other guys. They don't need much to make a play. Like I said, we played a really good game. I think we should enjoy it and get ready for Wednesday."
Lundqvist's efforts were nearly overshadowed by Thibault, who had the Rangers scratching their heads in frustration until Blair Betts deflected in defenseman Dan Girardi's shot from the right point just 47 seconds into the third period. The play, which came immediately after Betts won a faceoff in the Pittsburgh zone to Thibault's left, was set up by Ryan Hollweg, who dished the puck back to Girardi for a long shot that Betts redirected on the ice past Thibault's glove side.
"We stepped up big time," said Betts of the fourth line's performance. "Tonight was a big effort for us. There have been a number of times in the last dozen games or so where the majority of our ice time has come against the other team's top line. We are pretty reliable on the ice. We don't try and do too much offensively or be too creative. We create our offense off of forechecking and things like that. Most importantly, our mindset is to play good defensively."
Renney was proud of the entire fourth line's effort on Monday.
"Blair has centered the checking line for us in the past and he is very good at that," Renney said. "With his experience in the middle, in the face-off situation, that maybe Ryan (Hollweg) with his energy would keep people on their toes. Colton (Orr) could probably do the same thing off the other side provided we did not spend a lot of time in our own end. I thought they were able to go up against that line and do a pretty good job for us and they should be given just recognition."
The Blueshirts controlled the offensive flow for much of the evening. They had outshot the Penguins by a wide 29-13 margin through 40 minutes, but were repeatedly stymied by Thibault, who made a remarkable 19 saves in the second period alone.
"You never want to accept it or get used to it, but sometimes you lose hockey games and that is the way it goes," said Crosby. "We got a bad bounce there on the second goal. There is no doubt that they (the Rangers) were working hard. When you work hard you get breaks."
After a penalty-free first period, the pace really picked up in the middle frame, which saw three Rangers power plays but only one for the Pens. The Rangers did not allow that Pittsburgh power play until the 9:39 mark of the second period, when Sean Avery was called for goaltender interference as he drove in on Thibault from the right side.
Pittsburgh, led by Crosby and Malkin, applied sustained pressure during their first man-advantage, getting two long shots through to Lundqvist. They kept the puck in the Rangers zone for all but the final seconds, forcing the Blueshirts' four penalty-killers to stay on the ice for the entire Avery penalty.
The Rangers, however, refused to break and received a tremendous cheer from the Garden Faithful after killing off the penalty. Only 12 seconds later, they got their own opportunity to work with a man-advantage when Penguins winger Gary Roberts went off for elbowing at 11:51. Pittsburgh was just as effective in its penalty killing effort, limiting the Blueshirts to three shots.
The closest the Rangers came to scoring in the first period was only 20 seconds after the Roberts penalty had expired. Keeping the pressure on in the Penguins zone, the Rangers' No. 1 line of Brad Isbister, Jagr and Michael Nylander made a pretty passing play that ended with Isbister hitting the left post with a backhand attempt.
The story of the second period was Thibault, the Pittsburgh backup called on to start so that No. 1 netminder Marc-Andre Fleury could have the night off. Thibault and Lundqvist were locked in a goaltending duel through two periods, with neither netminder willing to blink.
Thibault certainly held the fort midway through the period, when the Rangers line of Avery, Ryan Callahan and Matt Cullen got some help from defensemen Paul Mara and Jason Strudwick to apply tremendous pressure on the Pittsburgh goal.
In the opening, period, Thibault wasn't as busy, but he stood up to perhaps the game's best Rangers scoring chance with only 2:29 to go in the period. Girardi had pinched in from the right point and unleashed a 24-foot slap shot at Thibault. Off balance to his left side, Pittsburgh's netminder managed to turn the shot away just before it could sneak inside the right post.
"They created a little bit more than we did. That is the way games have been for a while," said Crosby. "I don't think it was anything we didn't expect or weren't prepared for. We didn't play as disciplined as we needed to especially against a team that has a good power play like them."
The Rangers didn't register their first shot on goal until the 6:52 mark of the first period, when Cullen fired a wrister at Thibault. That shot came only 99 seconds after Pittsburgh had sent its first shot through to Lundqvist, making his eighth consecutive start tonight.
Although it took them six minutes to get that first shot, over the next six minutes, the Blueshirts came on strong with six more, as well assome tremendous puck possession by the No. 1 line, which line kept the puck pinned in the Pittsburgh zone for an entire shift midway through the period. That helped wear down a group of defensemen already tired from an overtime shootout win against Ottawa less than 24 hours earlier.
"We knew they were coming off a tough game last night," said Betts. "They were going to be a little bit tired so we concentrated on keeping the game simple. We were pretty fresh and they weren't."
Thibault's other big save in the first period came when he made a sliding stop on a backhander by Colton Orr at 8:50. Pittsburgh defenseman Ryan Whitney then blocked another shot, which led to a Pittsburgh breakout.
Lundqvist was also called on to make some big saves in the opening period. One of those stops was on a Crosby shot that resulted from a 3-on-2 break following the Thibault save on Orr. Crosby led the way on the 3-on-2, eventually getting off a wrist shot at 8:58. Lundqvist made that save, then came up with another on Mark Recchi at 9:15, freezing the puck for a faceoff.
Monday's game marked the 2006-07 season debut for Strudwick, a member of last seasons' Rangers team who signed with the Blueshirts as a free agent earlier in the day on Monday. Strudwick, who spent the entire Swiss league season with Lugano before returning to North America, is eligible to play the remaining regular season games but not the playoffs because he joined the team after the trade deadline.
Strudwick, paired on defense with Mara, was a big help Monday on the Blueshirts' blueline, which will eventually welcome back injured regulars Tyutin and Rachunek.
"We have a lot of guys injured and it is not easy to play," said Jagr. "The guys coming into the lineup are playing good. I am happy for the kids."