The Rangers found another way to win on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden, another winning recipe for a group that heads into Thanksgiving feeling all around their room like a team that is hitting its stride. But some things are a constant: Underpinning their latest win in only his latest milestone game, there was Henrik Lundqvist, taking a bow on Garden ice as the game's First Star.
Wednesday night marked the 1,000th game that Lundqvist has played for the Rangers, and he turned in another gem in a career full of them - in the process perpetuating the spell he has cast his entire career over the Carolina Hurricanes. Following back-to-back wins in which the Rangers came from behind in thrilling fashion, this time their burst came early, in the form of a three-goal first period, and Lundqvist saw it home from there with 41 saves in a 3-2 victory over the Hurricanes that gives the Rangers their first three-game winning streak of the season.
"I really liked our first 30 minutes," David Quinn said. "Then we just found a way to survive."
It was the Rangers' 17th victory in Carolina's last 18 visits to the Garden.
Overall, the Rangers have won four straight games on Garden ice, and are 9-4-1 in their last 14 games. That number was 8-4-1 in the absence of Mika Zibanejad, but the Rangers' No. 1 center returned on Wednesday night after a month out with an upper-body injury -- and he lit fuse on the Blueshirts' first-period eruption with a power-play goal just 2 minutes and 54 seconds into his return.
It came off a brilliantly patient feed from Adam Fox, who also scored the goal that held up as the game-winner while turning in a monster game in all three zones in his 19:20 on ice. Brendan Smith also scored for the Rangers, while Artemi Panarin added another multi-point game to his ledger with a pair of assists to make it 32 points through 23 games as a Ranger.
Ryan Dzingel and Warren Foegele scored 1:29 apart in the second period for Carolina to set up a tense final 20 minutes. But Lundqvist stopped all 17 shots he saw in the third period to once again slam the door on the Hurricanes.
"It's a fun feeling when you win in different ways," Lundqvist said afterward. "The other night I thought it was more the skill that helped us; tonight I thought it was more the will."
And it was the goaltender, who you have to imagine is in some of the Hurricanes' heads after the two games he has played against them this month alone, if not because of his entire career against them. He made 45 saves to steal a victory in Raleigh just 20 days earlier, and in all has turned away 86 of the 90 shots the Hurricanes have thrown on his net this season, a .956 percentage.
"He's in a good spot right now. He's getting into a rhythm," Quinn said. "He's playing great hockey."
His best save of the night will be in Martin Necas' nightmares. Necas was letting go a one-timer from low in the left circle late in the second period, and everyone in the building thought he had Lundqvist beat - including Lundqvist himself. But the goaltender twisted himself to reach his goalstick back in desperation, and caught enough of the puck to knock its course wide.
It could not have come at a more important time in the game, either: had it gone in, Carolina would have scored on three straight shifts to tie the score.
"If he puts it on the ice it's a tough save, it's actually easier when he lifted it a little bit," Lundqvist said. "I needed that. They got two quick ones, and you feel like, 'Let's close out this period with a lead. It's a totally different feeling going into the third period with a lead, and you don't have to force anything."
The victory upped Lundqvist's career record against Carolina to 32-12-1, with a GAA under 2, with nine wins in his last 10 games against them. His support in this one came from a flying start from all 18 Ranger skaters, with the first strike coming from Zibanejad when he slammed home Fox's feed across the goalmouth on the Rangers' second early power play; Fox had looked off Kreider down low and waited and waited until a seam opened up for a cross.
"I was trying to make eye contact him, and trying to be available, and he waited until the exact right time to make that pass," said Zibanejad, whose goal was his fifth in 10 games this season. "I just made sure I hit the net."
In all, Zibanejad played 16:49, lighter duty than is customary. "The first period was probably the toughest one," he said. "I'm nervous, I'm anxious, you're so looking forward to coming back and playing that you tense up a little bit. For a few seconds I forgot how to breathe."
"He just gives us so much more depth -- our whole lineup looks different," Quinn said of Zibanejad's return. "It's amazing what one center can do: The whole lineup is a lot longer and one deeper."
Smith was able to provide some breathing room with his second of the season just 1:18 later, a one-timer of Ryan Lindgren's feed along the blue line after Jesper Fast's steal on the forecheck started the play.
And once Fil Chytil fought off three Hurricanes in his defensive zone to get the puck out to Panarin in neutral ice, Fox finished the play at the other end at 18:20, staying deep in the attacking zone and posting in front of Petr Mrazek (22 saves) to put a tip on Panarin's shot.
It was Fox's fourth goal, tying him for second place behind Cale Makar among rookie NHL defensemen, but his game on Wednesday night was about much more than his second career multi-point night. It was perhaps best characterized by the second-period power play in which his stick blew up on a slap shot, but he still came back and rode Jordan Staal - who has five inches and 40 pounds on him - off the puck and into the ditch at the Ranger line.
"He's taking bigger players on, closing on them quickly, he's got great hockey strength, his anticipation's really good, he's got a good stick," Quinn said. "He's made the transition to the National Hockey League look a little bit easier than it should be."
Both Fox and Quinn will return to the scene of their college hockey days next, when the Rangers visit the Boston Bruins in Friday afternoon's NHL Thanksgiving Showdown. The Bruins sit atop the NHL standings and are the only team in the League yet to lose a regulation game on home ice. But the streaking Rangers are finding ways to win, with Zibanejad back in their lineup and Lundqvist as their backstop.
Afterward, Lundqvist reflected on yet another milestone in his legendary career: The sixth man to play 1,000 games for the Rangers in the regular season and playoffs. "I'm extremely proud. That's a lot of games for this organization," he said. "It makes me happy."