NEW YORK (AP) — Add Mats Zuccarello to the growing list of contributors to the New York Rangers’ surprising first half of the season.
Zuccarello struck for his first NHL goal 3:09 into overtime, and the Rangers reached the midpoint with a gritty 2-1 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes on Wednesday night.
New York (23-15-3), which missed the playoffs last season, moved seven points ahead of ninth-place Carolina in the Eastern Conference playoff race. The Rangers are seventh, but only four points behind No. 4 Philadelphia.
“We are halfway through now, and you can see the standings,” said Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who stood tall in making 31 saves. “It’s getting tighter and tighter. Coming off two losses, it was important to come back with a win.”
Zuccarello, the 5-foot-7 forward from Norway, scored in his sixth NHL game. He got to a rebound after Brandon Dubinsky charged in on goalie Cam Ward and scored from a near-impossible angle on the goal line with a drive underneath the crossbar.
“He has so much talent,” Dubinsky said of the 23-year-old Zuccarello, who was undrafted. “He is going to be really special for us from his talent alone.”
Zuccarello and Dubinsky also assisted on Matt Gilroy’s goal that snapped a scoreless tie 8:41 into the third period.
Eric Staal ruined Lundqvist’s shutout bid with 6:14 left in regulation to force overtime. but Carolina had its three-game winning streak against the Rangers broken. The Hurricanes have lost two in a row in overtime following a three-game winning run.
Carolina split the two games in New York this season.
“I would’ve liked a better result, but at the end of the day we’ve got three out of four points on the road against this team,” Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice said. “We’re going to have to win our games at home against them.”
Staal did it all on Carolina’s goal. He started the play by winning a faceoff in the New York end, then got to a rebound in front. He let go a shot as he dived through the air that got by Lundqvist for his 19th goal.
The Rangers managed to pull out the win despite a continuation of their offensive struggles. New York managed only four goals on a three-game trip in which the Rangers lost twice (1-1-1). Three of those goals were scored in the trip-opening victory over New Jersey.
“We’re not the most talented group in the world, but the thing that is going to carry us through is to play as a team,” Rangers coach John Tortorella said. “That’s what has given us our first-half start.”
New York salvaged a point in a 2-1 overtime loss to Tampa Bay before falling 3-0 at Florida on Sunday with backup Martin Biron in goal.
“It’s huge. We wanted to come out and play the way we’re capable of,” Dubinsky said. “We found a way.”
Gilroy, who was a healthy scratch for the ninth time in 15 games on Sunday, made the most of his return to the lineup when he netted his third of the season. After Dubinsky worked the puck behind the Carolina net, Zuccarello sent a pass out to the high slot to Gilroy, who fired a shot through traffic and over Ward’s right pad.
Ward was the hard-luck loser in this one despite being sharp in making 33 saves. It was the seventh straight start for Ward, who had allowed at least three goals in all but one of those outings — a shutout win on Dec. 29 at Ottawa.
“It was a tough game,” Maurice said. “In the second period we lost territorial advantage. Cam was very good. A 1-0 game might have been predictable the way the game was played. I thought it was just that it got to overtime.”
The second period provided even less action than the first, but the Rangers turned around the shot totals. After trailing 13-8 after the first, New York held a 15-8 edge in the second when they had one full power play and started a second in the closing seconds.
The intrigue on that one was Eric Staal took a charging penalty against his brother Marc, a Rangers defenseman.
Marc Staal had a prime scoring chance with 2:13 left in the second when his rising drive was grabbed by the outstretched glove of Ward. Just seconds later, Alex Frolov was late in getting to a loose puck after it got behind Ward. Hurricanes defenseman Joe Corvo swept it out of danger in the crease.
Carolina had two power plays in the first period, that also featured a fight between New York’s Brandon Prust and Hurricanes counterpart Troy Bodie.
NOTES: Eric Staal played in his 518th game, putting him alone in eighth on the Hurricanes’ franchise list. … Rangers D Ryan McDonagh, recalled Monday from Connecticut of the AHL, was scratched. He has yet to make his NHL debut. … Zuccarello had one assist in his first five games. … New York D Michal Rozsival sustained an injury to his rib area. Tortorella said he is day-to-day. The Rangers will play at Dallas on Friday.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)