Wednesday's Game Against The Penguins Will Be A Big Measuring Stick

Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
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The Rangers and their fans desperately needed something to smile about. Sometimes, good fortune comes from the most unlikely of places.

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All season long, winger Benoit Pouliot’s inconsistent play and overall lack of production has frustrated not only Rangers fans — but also head coach Alain Vigneault.

“Ben has been given a real fair opportunity and he hasn’t played to ours and his expectations,” Vigneault said on Dec. 7.

On Sunday night, Pouliot produced a moment of sheer brilliance by pulling off a dazzling backhand move that proved to be the shootout winner. Pouliot channeled his inner-Peter Forsberg by deking across his body and pushing the puck past Calgary netminder Karri Ramo.

After stick checking Mikael Backlund’s seventh-round shootout attempt aside, an obviously relieved Henrik Lundqvist stretched out his arms like a starfish, with his grateful eyes transfixed on the famous Madison Square Garden ceiling.

The dark cloud hanging over this team finally departed, as the Rangers finally snapped a deflating four-game losing streak by defeating the Flames in the shootout.

Night after night, the Rangers appeared shell-shocked by the gravity of a homestand losing skid that was sucking the life out of the locker room.

No player was more affected than Lundqvist, who at times could barely bring himself to raise his voice above a faint whisper and struggled to lift his head to meet the eyes of reporters.

The relief was evident in Lundqvist’s face. That being said, Lundqvist said the Rangers have a lot to prove and have only taken a small step forward.

“It was just a big relief to finally get two points,” Lundqvist said. “I had a chance to close it out twice (in the shootout), and I didn’t do it.  I just had a feeling that if we don’t win this one, I’m not going to be a happy guy.

“Right now, you have to look at it as taking baby steps in improving, and start winning,” Lundqvist added. “You can’t turn this around right away. You start with one period, then two periods, then a game. Then you start feeling good about yourself and where we are. It’s a good feeling to at least get this one.”

For the Blueshirts, it’s all about feeling. How far can that good feeling take them? We’ll find out soon enough. The Rangers host the rival Penguins on Wednesday night. While Pittsburgh is ravaged by injuries to key stars, it is always a formidable group.

This Rangers team has made poor starts a habit, have a tendency to allow odd-man rushes and at times struggle to clear the puck out of their own zone. The Blueshirts put themselves into an early two-goal hole against the Flames that would have been wider had Lundqvist not come up with a number of highlight saves on breakaway and odd-man chances.

Making such mistakes against the high-octane Penguins on Wednesday could put the Rangers in a very deep hole. Lundqvist’s glove hand and quick stick bailed out the Rangers on multiple occasions. Unless the Rangers screw their heads on straight for the entire 60 minutes against the Pens, “King Henrik” will have to be at his superhuman best.

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Before Sunday, Derek Stepan went 10 games without a goal. The key center has failed to follow up on the outstanding production that resulted in 44 points in 48 games last season. Stepan appeared to be playing catch-up all season, following a lengthy holdout that ended just before the regular season.

The 23-year-old is showing signs of returning to the player whom the organization expects to be a major contributor in both the present and for years to come.

On Sunday, Stepan looked like a dependable center. With the Rangers down 2-0, Rick Nash dropped off a pass to Stepan at the top of the right circle. Stepan beat Ramo far-side.

In addition to his first period goal, Stepan looked a lot more involved compared to previous games. His confidence appears to be rising.

“You look at games this year and you talk about a kick-back or a push-back,” Stepan said. “Tonight was a good night for us to push back.”

With 7:53 remaining in regulation, Stepan drove toward goal after receiving a Chris Kreider drop pass and made a nifty fake before dropping off a puck in front of the net that rebounded off Ramo. Kreider shoveled in the loose puck, giving Stepan his 100th career assist.

Meawhile, Carl Hagelin rediscovered the desperation that’s usually apparent in his game, finding the scoresheet on a wraparound in the second period.

The fast-skating Swede tied Michael Del Zotto for the team lead with four shots on Sunday night. Vigneault said Hagelin is capable of reaching a higher gear and will reward the 25-year-old if he gains consistency.

“A guy like Hags tonight who all of a sudden in the second period gets going — well, get going and we’ll play you more,” Vigneault said. “That’s what I did in the second and the third.”

Both Stepan and Hagelin are two players who needed to raise their game. Should they continue to collect points, the Rangers should trend upward in the Metropolitan Division and Eastern Conference standings.

You can follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.

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