‘Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
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The run-and-gun Tampa Bay Lightning wanted to force the New York Rangers into a track meet on Sunday.  Early on, the Rangers took the bait, left gaps in their defense and nearly paid the price.

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You can’t give up six first period odd-man rushes to a team with the offensive firepower of the Lightning and expect to come out on top.  Tampa Bay is loaded with three scoring aces you’ll recognize — Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier — and a rookie you should take notice of, generously listed 5-foot-8 forward Cory Conacher.

What turned out to be a 5-1 Rangers victory could have gone quite differently had Henrik Lundqvist not been on his game.  A lesser goalie may have buckled under the pressure generated by a speedy and skillful Tampa Bay roster that lives up to the lightning bolt logo across their chest.

Always his own toughest critic, Lundqvist never ceases to find new ways of motivating himself and raising his level.  Some have questioned whether Lundqvist could repeat a tremendous Vezina Trophy-winning season.  Last night, Lundqvist looked every bit an elite goalie deserving of major hardware.

“He’s playing much better,” John Tortorella said in his postgame press conference. “You all know he’s going to get there. He’s such a competitor. He was big for us early, that game could change really quickly.  He made some big saves in the first ten minutes.”

Tortorella credited Lundqvist’s response to a barrage of early Lightning chances as the key reason why the Rangers were able to earn a victory on Sunday night.

“I really feel the most important part of the game was Hank in the first period,” Tortorella stated.  “We’re up 2-0 and giving up chance after chance.  We could have easily been down 3-2 in that first period.”

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Lundqvist displayed cheetah-like reflexes and the focus of a monk by standing up to the enormous pressure generated by Tampa’s star forwards.  He believes he’s now reaching the level he may have lacked earlier this season.

“Technically and mentally, I’m getting close to where I need to be,” Lundqvist explained. “It’s making the extra save when I need to. I feel like the last couple of games, I’ve been doing my job.”

Fellow Swede Carl Hagelin did much of the heavy lifting offensively by scoring the game’s opening goal with a redirected effort 31 seconds into the game and later turned on the jets on an odd-man rush to score his second goal of the evening.

“Any puck that’s in question or when defensemen totally don’t have control of it, they’re in jeopardy with Hags being right there on top of them.  He creates a lot of opportunities with that speed,” Rangers captain Ryan Callahan said of Hagelin’s speed.

Hagelin beared down on Tampa Bay Lightning Mathieu Garon and beat Garon through the five hole to increase the Rangers’ lead to 3-0.  It took the wind out of the sails of the Lightning and chased Garon for backup Anders Lindback.

On the other end of the ice, Lundqvist looked as sharp and commanding as ever.  Against Tampa Bay, secondary scorers such as Hagelin and Arron Asham lighting the lamp was evidence of the Rangers putting together scoring depth.

That combined with Lundqvist playing at his peak once again will rocket the Blueshirts up the Eastern Conference standings.

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Is Lundqvist back to his very best?  Share your thoughts below and send your tweets to @HartnettHockey.