GLENDALE, Ariz. — Three nights after a complete dud against the Blackhawks, the Rangers had one of their worst periods of the season in the first against the NHL-worst Coyotes, and it is at that moment when one wonders how stretches like this are going to impact the Blueshirts’ playoff pursuit, if they have what it takes to hang in the Manic Metro division.
There was an intermission of self-reflection for the Rangers. Stern words were said, tweaks were made and ultimately after a Henrik Lundqvist gem, of which there have been many the last two-plus months, the Rangers pulled out a 2-1 shootout win Saturday with Lundqvist denying old friend Derek Stepan to seal the victory.
Say what you will about the Rangers, 22-14-5 with 49 points midway through the season, but there are prideful men in that locker room who know they played four consecutive unacceptable periods.
“We’re thinking of it as, is this the team we’re gonna be?” Kevin Shattenkirk told the Daily News. “We’re at the halfway point now, and these lapses, they can’t happen if we want to be a successful team down the road here. I think that’s how we look at it. We don’t want to be that team. We don’t want to be the team that gives up those kind of chances and comes out and lays an egg like that.”
As bad as things seemed at times, the Rangers didn’t allow an even-strength goal, only ex-Ranger prospect Anthony Duclair scoring in the first after a questionable delay-of-game penalty against Shattenkirk for knocking the goal off its moorings.
Jimmy Vesey, the Rangers’ best forward Saturday, tied the game in the second after taking the puck from Oliver Ekman-Larsson in the corner and driving toward goal.
And it all came down to Lundqvist vs. Stepan, teammates for seven seasons and postseasons. Stepan went with a simple wind-and-fire slapper in the slot, which Lundqvist saved. His former understudy Antti Raanta made 24 saves.
“It’s a mind game almost when you face Derek there in the end. I don’t want to start to overthink it,” said Lundqvist, who made 38 saves and has made at least 30 saves in nine straight games for the first time in his career. During that stretch he has a 2.05 goals against average and .943 save percentage.
Shattenkirk said they were “disgusted” with the opening 20 minutes. Even the soft-spoken Jesper Fast told MSG during an intermission interview that the first period was “embarrassing.” The Rangers were careless and lethargic. Leadership spoke out.
“We’re a team that seems to respond well when we kind of get that — our leaders are guys you don’t want to disappoint, put it that way,” Shattenkirk said. “When they step up and say something, you know you’ve got to take that to heart and really make sure we’re going out there and putting something out there that we’re proud of.”
For them to be proud more often, the Rangers have to stop allowing so many quality chances and do better by their goaltender, who has bailed them out time and again in what has been a renaissance season for the 35-year-old. He made three key stops in overtime, during which the Rangers had to kill a 4-on-3 power play over the final 1:29.
Maybe a better team makes the Rangers pay more for that first period. A better team is what they’ll see Sunday, going from worst-to-first in the West by heading to Vegas for their final game before their five-day bye week.
It was against the Golden Knights at the Garden on Halloween when the Rangers’ season turned around, a four-goal third period salvaging a win that spurred a stretch of six straight wins.
Who are the Rangers? What kind of team do they want to be? Sunday may provide some answers.
“I think we understand the test we have (Sunday),” J.T. Miller said. “And if we come out the same way we did today, it could be a lot uglier than that.”
Mats Zuccarello was sick and didn’t play. He was replaced by Vinni Lettieri, who moved up to the second line in the second period while Pavel Buchnevich dropped to the fourth.