Igor Shesterkin was hardly timid about it. With the puck on his stick and a two-goal lead in his pocket, the Rangers' rookie goaltender took not one but two glances down toward the empty Red Wings net at the Eighth Avenue end of Madison Square Garden, and -- no hesitation, no shyness -- let one shot fly and then another.
"He was going for it," Marc Staal said afterward with a laugh. "I was yelling at him, Shoot the first one -- the second one he may have run out of time, but he was close.
"Two-goal lead, 10 seconds left? You've got to go for it there."
Neither hit its target, of course, but no matter -- the Rangers had done the legwork by that point, and in any case, Shesterkin in one way was just following his teammates' lead: In their first game back from the All-Star break, the Rangers didn't dip their toes in, didn't feel out their first game after a nine-day layoff. They were not timid about it.
Following a scoreless first period during which the Blueshirts solved everything but Jimmy Howard, the floodgates opened up in the second and the Rangers rode it to a 4-2 victory on Friday night in the opener of a home-and-home series with the Detroit Red Wings that marks the unofficial start of the season's second half.
Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad each picked up their stellar first half where they left off: Zibanejad had a goal and two assists -- including point No. 200 as a Ranger -- while Panarin, true to form, supplied the highlight goal of the night, one that started with his own defensive play in the Rangers' zone, concluded with a mesmerizing move and finish at the Red Wings' net, and held up in the end as the game-winner.
Pavel Buchnevich and Chris Kreider added goals for the Blueshirts -- Buchnevich for the second straight game and Kreider for the 11th time in the last 17 -- while Tony DeAngelo had a pair of assists.
Shesterkin, alas, went scoreless, so he had to settle merely for his third win in four career NHL starts. He made 23 saves in this one, including a couple very important ones to keep the Wings from stealing a lead while the Rangers controlled the early going. From there it took patience and persistence and the opening goal from Buchnevich to break the ice midway through the game and send the Blueshirts on their way.
The Rangers -- who played without taking a penalty for the first time in three seasons -- won for the sixth time in their last eight games on Garden ice, and after doing so they headed straight to the airport to get to Saturday night's rematch in Detroit against this Red Wings team that lost for the seventh consecutive time (0-6-1).
"It's important to come back after a break like that and feel good about yourself," Zibanejad said. "I thought we played a good game today, and good enough to win. Now we focus on tomorrow."
It was in the balance early on because of Howard, the veteran Red Wing who grew up a Ranger fan and has thrived throughout his career playing at Madison Square Garden. The 35-year-old stopped all 15 of the Blueshirts' shots in the first period, including one jaw-dropper with the catching glove that took a goal away from Filip Chytil 11 minutes in.
It wasn't until 9:23 into the second, when Buchnevich beat Filip Hronek through the slot without the puck, and Zibanejad got around Patrik Nemeth to pass it to him for an off-balance tap-in, that the Rangers finally broke through on Howard and felt a little breathing room.
"It was one of those feelings where you're like, 'Uh oh, is this going to be one of those nights where you're doing a lot of good things, and the goalie's just doing his part of the other end of it?'" David Quinn said. "But you've just got to keep going and keep getting inside, and managing the game."
"When you're pressing that hard and you're creating those chances and you don't get rewarded, it's obviously nice when you get that first one," Zibanejad said. "'Relax' is maybe the wrong word, but you feel a little bit more confident in that situation. It was noticeable."
Robby Fabbri and Valtteri Filppula scored for Detroit, but not before the Rangers had built up a four-goal lead that had them easing off the gas a bit. Shesterkin was taking this start after having been the only Ranger to get in some game action during the All-Star break -- he won back-to-back starts for Hartford, allowing just three goals on 62 shots (.952). On Friday night he had 15 saves through the first 40 minutes to carry a shutout bid into the third period -- something he has done in each of his last two NHL starts.
"I think it was helpful to go back, and to prove myself here," Shesterkin said through an interpreter. "The team really helped me; there were lots of block shots today" -- 18 by the Rangers -- "so that was good."
"Just gets better and better," Zibanejad said of Shesterkin. "Great job. He was there when we needed him."
Perhaps best of all on this night was the shift by Panarin in the final minute of the second. His poke check on Tyler Bertuzzi turned the puck over, after which he motored up the left side for a Jesper Fast outlet. Working 1-on-1 against Alex Biega, Panarin pulled the string to get around the Wings defenseman, then reached out and somehow put some force behind a backhander that beat Howard short-side for his 27th goal of the season - now four shy of his career best.
This was Panarin's return after sitting out his first game as a Ranger 10 days earlier, as well as the NHL All-Star Game last weekend. "Him and Mika have that ability, when they are in the lineup they make their two linemates just that much better," Quinn said, adding in understated fashion: "It's nice to have him back."
His goal followed Buchnevich's net-drive at 9:23 of the second, and Kreider's net-front tip of Adam Fox's shot at 11:56. Zibanejad finished the Rangers' scoring on a power-play wrister 5:02 into the third.
And with his opposing goalie on the bench and his third career victory all but in hand, Shesterkin -- who said he once scored a goal in Russian junior hockey, and who has opened eyes at the NHL level with his puckhandling ability -- wanted to see if he could put his own exclamation point on the whole thing. "I'd be surprised if he doesn't get one" at some point in his career, Quinn said. "He's one of those goalies: He's got poise, and he's got the ability, physically, to get that puck down the ice."
He has some puck-stopping ability too, and on this night he played a big role in getting the Rangers off and running not only on this home-and-home with the Wings, but in the gauntlet that is their post-All-Star schedule -- 34 games in 65 days to finish the regular season.
"It was a good break -- reset your mind a little bit and rest your body, and guys were excited to be back," Zibanejad said. "We know what's ahead of us, and we're excited about it."