After a long road trip that brought the New York Rangers to all ends of the world, they looked at the homestand that lasted the past two weeks as an opportunity to find their game and get into a groove. After winning four of the six games they played at the newly renovated Madison Square Garden, I think it's safe to say that the Blueshirts have found their game, and are playing hockey how they intended to going into the season.
Tonight's 3-0 shutout defeat of the Winnipeg Jets was huge in terms of confidence, as the team knew it would be a tough game to win since they were involved in a spirited match-up the night before when they beat the Montreal Canadiens. But they came out, played a solid game all around and grabbed yet another set of two points before they hit the road to play the Ottawa Senators on Wednesday
The Rangers were forced to kill off two penalties in the first period, and I think that was key in getting them stabilized in this game. Winnipeg had the better of the play in the opening period, but Biron and the Blueshirts defended them well and got through what was a rough first twenty minutes.
New York responded with a better effort in the second period, taking the lead in shots and also on the scoreboard. Derek Stepan, who was moved onto the first powerplay unit by head coach John Tortorella tonight, received a pass from Mike Del Zotto (which deflected off Marian Gaborik on the way there) at the top of the circle and roofed it over goaltender Ondrej Pavelec to give the Rangers a 1-0 lead. It's ironic, sort of, that Del Zotto and Stepan were the ones who connected for the goal as both are young players who got off to a slow start this season, but just recently started to pick up their play.
That goal would not be the last of Stepan on the scoresheet tonight, however, as he also fed Marian Gaborik for a goal on a two-on-one in the third period to make it 2-0 Rangers. Stepan and Gaborik have been making magic together ever since they've been paired up on the same line, and it's showed specifically in the last couple of games. Stepan's vision is second-to-none on this team and ever since he had a little chat about that with big brother Brad Richards this past week, he's begun to utilize that weapon, which he may not have even known he had.
Gaborik would also end up lofting a backhander over everyone and into the empty net to make it 3-0 before the final buzzer in the third period.
Aside from Stepan and Gaborik, goaltender Marty Biron also deserves some of the spotlight tonight, after making 23 saves to earn the shutout and his third win of the season. It's great to see a team guy like Biron get wins like these because he spends most of his time with the Rangers on the bench as a back-up, but every time he's been called upon to start this year he has been incredible. I'm sure he greatly appreciated the "Mar-ty, Mar-ty" chants from the crowd on hand this evening.
As a whole, the Rangers are playing some excellent hockey right now. You look at the last four games/opponents and realize that they weren't convenient for the Blueshirts at all. The Sharks were a team that was coming in on a five-game winning streak, the Ducks were a frustrated bunch that was fired up to turn things around, the Habs came in on a four-game winning streak, and they had to play the Jets on the second half of a back-to-back.
Taking all of that into consideration, this four-game streak that the Rangers have built here is quite impressive, because their schedule certainly didn't favor them this way. They are finally playing New York Rangers hockey how it's meant to be played, and although many of you will be somewhat reluctant to admit it, some credit has to go to coach Tortorella here.
He made the decision to put Richards with Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky, and that has greatly impacted all three of those players in a positive way. Torts also chose to put Stepan with Gaborik, and as I said, their chemistry has become magical. And even the decision to put Stepan on the first powerplay unit only took two periods to pay off. It could be luck, it could be strategy, but whatever it is, John Tortorella has done a pretty nice job behind the bench over the last four or five games.
Now at 7-3-3 on the season, the Rangers find themselves in fifth place in the Eastern Conference. They only trail the first place Pittsburgh Penguins by two points, and have played two less games. Their next game will be in Ottawa on Wednesday against the Senators.