By Sean Hartnett
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The Rangers are turning the corner as the Christmas break nears.
Having ripped off three straight wins against tough opponents in the Los Angeles Kings, Boston Bruins and Anaheim Ducks, there’s clear evidence that the Blueshirts are trending in the right direction.
A week ago, it was uncertain how this team would respond following tepid performances in defeats to the Dallas Stars and Ottawa Senators. The Rangers’ puck management, execution, and energy fell far below the required level.
But of late, the bad habits have been purged from this team’s system. No longer are the Rangers spotting opponents early leads and turning over the puck with frequency. They were able to match the skill, speed, and desperation level of the visiting Ducks on Tuesday and were rewarded for their efforts with a 4-1 victory.
“It feels that the last two games, we’ve been playing a good 60-minute game,” defenseman Brady Skjei said. “We feel like we’ve been playing good in the last few games here.”
The win pulled the Rangers into third place in the highly-competitive Metropolitan Division. Here are three keys to how the Rangers have turned around their fortunes:
LUNDQVIST ON HIS A-GAME
Henrik Lundqvist began the season with an .898 save percentage through 10 October games. He has responded with back-to-back months of superior goaltending.
Lundqvist is 15-4 with a 2.36 goals-against average, a .929 save percentage and one shutout in 20 appearances since Oct. 31. The 35-year-old netminder has posted a 1.65 GAA and a .955 save percentage (105 saves on 110 shots) during his current three-game winning streak.
“I feel really good,” Lundqvist said. “I think the way I take care of myself right now as I am getting older — the way I eat, the way I sleep, the way I prepare — I try to do everything I can to stay on top of my game. I feel like the team is playing really well and that’s helpful. I can focus on the shooter a lot. It’s a big thing for me to commit to the shooter a lot more, feeling that support from the guys around me. I think the last month and a half I have been feeling really good.”
On Tuesday night, Lundqvist was tested with 16 first-period shots and his acrobatics allowed the Rangers to reach the first intermission with a 1-0 lead. In all, Lundqvist made 39 saves to tame the Ducks.
“You never feel like ‘you’ve got this.’ It’s a team game,” Lundqvist said. “I think it’s important that you’re honest with yourself, where we are as a group, how we’re playing. I think we all felt like we needed to raise our level. They’re a good team. They move the puck well, they’ve got some speed. We had to match that.
“I thought we stepped up in the second period and made some good plays,” he continued. “We completed a lot harder, too. When you’re in it in the first period, you know it’s not going to last, so you just have to get through it without getting hurt. Something is going to happen to change the momentum of the game and it felt like let’s just get out of this one in a tied game. Then we get the late goal, which was huge. It really helped us to get going in the second period.”
Some in the hockey media were quick to commit regicide by declaring that “King Henrik” had lost a step. That doesn’t appear to be the case. Lundqvist’s .920 save percentage through 29 games matches his career save percentage. It seems that last season’s .910 mark was an aberration in an otherwise splendid career. He remains the generational goalie of his era.
SPECIAL TEAMS SUPERIORITY
Entering Tuesday, the Rangers were one of two teams to rank in the top six in both power play percentage and penalty kill percentage. The 0-for-2 power play performance that followed dipped the Rangers to 20.9 percent and out of the top-six league-wide, but the Blueshirts are tied for fourth overall with a PK percentage of 83.4.
The Rangers have not allowed a power play goal in six of the last seven games, killing off 21 of 22 man-down situations. They killed off both of Anaheim’s power play opportunities and held the Ducks to one power play shot on goal.
“We just got off a challenging stretch of six in nine (games),” head coach Alain Vigneault said. “We did well. We’re able to find a way to get the right type of energy tonight five-on-five and on special teams. That’s all part of making sure that everybody can contribute.”
Mika Zibanejad appeared to be finding his feet in his return following a nine-game absence. As time goes on, expect Zibanejad to get back to being the difference-maker he’s capable of being on the first line and top power play unit.
CONTRIBUTIONS DOWN THE LINE
Earlier this season, the Rangers were overly reliant on first line of Chris Kreider, Zibanejad, and Pavel Buchnevich.
Lately, the Rangers have been getting scoring punch and solid play across four lines. Mats Zuccarello was the hero in Saturday’s 3-2 overtime win over the Bruins. On Tuesday, fourth-liner Paul Carey chipped in two goals. He has recorded six points, including three goals) over the last nine games. Linemate David Desharnais has tallied nine points (eight assists) over the last 10 games.
With Zibanejad back in action, Vigneault is now able to spread out minutes across four lines and three defensive pairings. During Tuesday’s win, every Rangers forward played at least 13 minutes and they were all kept under 18 minutes. No defenseman exceeded 22 minutes and Skjei was the low man with 17:51.
“When we win, it’s team-oriented,” Vigneault said. “It’s because of contributions are from throughout the lineup, whether it be a blocked shot, whether it be making an offensive play, whether it be a big save from Hank. You look at where our minutes are spread out, it’s a team thing and that’s how we’re going to continue to roll.”
The Rangers’ return to form makes Thursday’s road meeting with the rival Devils all the more intriguing. New Jersey fell into second place in the Metro following the Washington Capitals’ 4-3 overtime win over the Dallas Stars.
Washington (45 points in 35 games) and New Jersey (43 in 33) are now in the Rangers’ sights. All that stands between the Blueshirts and first place is a four-point gap.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey