The phrase “must win game” gets thrown around loosely in sports lexicon nowadays. Unless it’s an elimination game, or a win needed to keep pace in a playoff race, another opportunity will come along after that “must win” game to right the ship. After a 1-3 road trip, the New York Rangers season wasn’t at “must win” status, but it was approaching a crossroads. Coming in to the week, the Blueshirts found themselves outside the top 8 in the East. With back to back games within miles of home, they could either claw back in to the playoff party, or slide deeper in to the wrong end of the standings.
On Monday night, the Rangers played their first game at Madison Square Garden since March 8th (a regulation loss to the Ottawa Senators). It was the first meeting of the season between the Rangers and the Carolina Hurricanes. It should have been the first regular season game involving all three Staal brothers, but Rangers defenseman Marc Staal is sidelined indefinitely with an eye injury. It would be his older brother Eric that would score first in the game, with less than a minute remaining in the first period. Midway through the second period, Derek Stepan put home a loose puck in front of the Carolina crease to even the score. The game would remain that way all the way to the shootout. Rick Nash and JT Miller converted their shootout opportunities, and the Rangers snapped their three game losing streak. Goalie Henrik Lundqvist stood tall, denying both Carolina attempts in the shootout to go along with 29 saves in the victory.
With the losing streak over, the Rangers had a chance to build momentum the next night in Newark. This would be the second meeting of the season between the cross-rival rivals, with the New Jersey Devils winning 3-1 back on February 7th. New Jersey came in to the game looking for their first win in almost a week. Both teams needed points, and they played that way in the first period. The Rangers got on the board first courtesy of a Michael Del Zotto shorthanded goal (also his 100th career point). Derek Stepan fired the puck towards the net, and Del Zotto batted the puck out of mid-air in to the net. The Devils squandered their first power play opportunity of the game, but Travis Zajac didn’t let the second one go to waste, tying the game with his fifth goal of the season about three minutes later. 1:45 after Zajac’s goal, Carl Hagelin put an end to his nine-game scoring drought, courtesy of a Dan Girardi bank-pass off the boards behind the Devils net to put New York ahead again. 23 seconds later, New Jersey defenseman Anton Volchenkov notched his first goal of the season to knot things at two heading in to the first intermission.
The four-goal first period frenzy didn’t carry over in to the second period, but both Henrik Lundqvist and Johan Hedberg had to make plenty of quality saves to keep the game even. It had been five games since Rick Nash scored, but he ended his four game pointless streak at 7:25 of the second period. A pass from Del Zotto sprung Nash free, and his shot from the dot went by Hedberg to give the Rangers the lead for good. The Rangers got back to their defensive ways in the third period, holding the Devils to seven shots and only taking four of their own.
The back-to-back wins by the Rangers put them back in the Top 8 in the East. Currently, the Hurricanes and Toronto Maple Leafs are ahead of New York in 6th and 7th place respectively, but all have identical 15-12-2 records. Things were starting to look bad for the Blueshirts, but winning these two games should do a lot for their psyche. Just like when they were starting to build momentum two weeks ago, the Rangers have another opportunity to get on a roll. Their next two games are at Madison Square Garden. First up is the 15th-place Florida Panthers on Thursday night, followed by the 14th-place Washington Capitals on Sunday evening. With a three game road trip looming afterwards, the Rangers can’t afford to walk away with less than three points in those games. The Rangers have 19 games left, and trail the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Atlantic Division by 14 points. While catching the Pens doesn’t look likely (they’re currently on a ten game winning streak), they only trail the 4th place Boston Bruins by nine points. If the Blueshirts want to have home ice in the first round, the push has to begin now