PITTSBURGH (AP) — New York Rangers coach John Tortorella watched his team slog through the opening minutes of Friday night’s game against Pittsburgh and decided he’d seen enough.
Worried the hangover from Monday’s draining win over Philadelphia in the league’s annual outdoor Winter Classic had finally arrived, Tortorella burned his only timeout less than six minutes into the game.
And just like about every other move the newly minted All-Star coach has made this season, it worked.
The streaking Rangers collected themselves after the timeout, riding Henrik Lundqvist’s 37 saves and taking advantage of sloppy play by the reeling Penguins to roll to a 3-1 victory.
“I just wanted to let them know that we’re just not mailing this in, because that’s the look we had,” Tortorella said. “You see teams so much in our league say, `OK let’s pack it in tonight, we’ll get going the next game.’ I don’t want this team to do that and I think we found a way to at least gain some energy, found a way to score some goals.”
It’s what the Rangers do these days better than anyone in the league.
Brandon Dubinsky had a short-handed goal and assisted on Brad Richard’s 15th tally of the season while Derek Stepan took advantage of a gaffe by Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury to notch his ninth goal as New York won its fourth consecutive game and ninth in its past 10.
The Rangers improved their position atop the Eastern Conference thanks in large part to Lundqvist, who has won six straight starts. He held the Penguins in check with a series of flashy glove saves and dug in when Pittsburgh turned the pressure up late.
“A lot of that game is the way we want to play, the way we need to play,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. “It comes down to a couple plays, a couple mistakes by our team.”
None bigger than Fleury’s ill-fated decision to wander far from his net early in the third period.
Trailing by one, Fleury raced outside the left faceoff dot to play a New York clearing attempt.
Fleury whiffed at a pass, giving the puck to New York’s Marian Gaborik, whose shot at the wide-open net clanged off the post. Stepan had little trouble with the rebound to give the Rangers a two-goal cushion.
The victory capped an eventful week for New York, which has surged to the top of the Eastern Conference standings over the past month despite the presence of camera crews that documented the buildup to the annual Winter Classic in Philadelphia on Monday.
The bright lights left after the Rangers rallied for a 3-2 victory at Citizens Bank Park, but the Rangers have kept on rolling.
New York rallied for a 3-2 overtime win against Southeast Division-leading Florida on Thursday then improved to 5-0-1 in the second game of back-to-backs by relying on Lundqvist and making Pittsburgh pay for its miscues.
“I don’t think we controlled the game after that by any stretch, but we got ourselves involved and (gave) ourselves a chance to win,” New York center Mike Rupp said.
The Penguins have dropped three straight games in regulation for the first time this season and now trail New York by eight points in the Atlantic Division as the season nears its halfway point.
“We did a lot of good things; we just didn’t capitalize on them,” Pittsburgh forward Chris Kunitz said. “But they also capitalized on their chances … like on 2-on-1s, plays that were kind of easy goals for them.”
Pittsburgh, second in the league in shots per game, came out firing, dominating most of the first period and taking a 1-0 lead on Ben Lovejoy’s first goal since last March.
Tortorella called timeout and told his players to stick with it.
New York, which didn’t get into town until well after midnight following its overtime triumph over Florida, finally woke up just before the end of the period when Dubinsky’s shot from the corner bounced right off Fleury’s pads and onto Richards’ stick.
Richards pounced on it for one of his easiest goals of the season. Dubinsky tapped in a short-handed goal at the end of a 3-on-1 break early in the second period and Lundqvist took over from there.
Calmly turning away one of the league’s more dynamic offenses, he improved on his 1.92 goals-against average by never wavering in the face of a sometimes relentless Penguins attack.
Pittsburgh appeared to get within 3-2 midway through the third period, but referees waved off James Neal’s goal because of incidental contact between Lundqvist and Kunitz.
Bylsma contended Kunitz was pushed into Lundqvist by a New York defenseman, though the referees ruled otherwise.
“I think (Kunitz) was forced there by the stick between his legs,” Bylsma said.
New York improved to 5-0-1 in the second game of back-to-backs this season and let Tortorella celebrate on the day he earned a coaching spot in next month’s All-Star game.
It was a nice way to end a tough few days for Tortorella, who was fined $30,000 for derogatory comments about the officiating in the Winter Classic.
He praised his team for the All-Star gig, particularly his red-hot goaltender, who has stayed sharp thanks to a slightly lighter workload. Tortorella has given backup Martin Biron a handful of starts in the past two weeks to keep Lundqvist from wearing down.
“I think what helps him is the play of Marty Biron where (Henrik) can get some good practice time and be as focused and sharp as he was tonight,” Tortorella said. “He was outstanding.”
Notes: Pittsburgh center Jordan Staal left the game with less than 5 minutes remaining following a collision with Rupp, a former Pittsburgh teammate. … The Penguins fell to 16-12-3 this season when playing without center Sidney Crosby. … The Rangers are off until Tuesday when they host Phoenix.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)