By Sean Hartnett
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After being embarrassed by the lowly Edmonton Oilers on Sunday, the highly-motivated Rangers flipped the script by dominating the Metropolitan Division-leading Pittsburgh Penguins for the entirety of 60 minutes on Tuesday night.
Center Derick Brassard admitted that fear fueled the Rangers’ 5-0 victory over their division rivals.
“One of the reasons we responded was because we played the best team in the league,” said Brassard. “We didn’t want to have the same result as last game. When you’re scared, you kind of show up to play. We executed everything, in the d-zone, everything was perfect. We got back and helped the defensemen. Now, it’s just (about needing) to bring it every game.”
The Rangers knew they couldn’t afford to repeat Sunday’s spiritless performance against a high-octane Penguins team that had previously won seven consecutive games. From the opening face-off to the final buzzer, the Rangers seized the opportunity with quick legs and boundless energy.
“Not one guy in this room was happy or was going to accept the way we played last game,” alternate captain Marc Staal said. “We wanted to respond. I thought our energy level, our emotion on the bench throughout the game — everyone was engaged and that’s when we started rolling. We started creating offense and taking care of our own end.”
Alain Vigneault’s Rangers responded with a total team effort. Scatterbrained defensive-zone mistakes and foolish passes were stamped out. As Vigneault pointed out, it only takes one mistake-prone player to throw things out of sync.
“The right way to play is that you need five guys working together,” Vigneault said. “As soon as you have one guy, whether it’s a linemate or a d-partner that’s not making the right decisions with and without the puck, it affects the other four guys on the ice. Tonight, there’s no doubt that we were in sync.”
Alternate captain Derek Stepan saw consistency in how the Rangers were able to play harmoniously in all situations.
“I think we did a lot of things tonight in fives,” Stepan said. “We defended in five, we broke the puck out in five. When you do that, it makes it very easy to connect dots.”
RANGERS SHUT DOWN DOMINANT PENGUINS POWER PLAY
The Penguins entered Madison Square Garden with a 37.5 success rate on the power play. New York cooled off the league’s most dangerous power play by smothering the Penguins on each of their three power-play opportunities, eliminating any room for Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to work their magic.
“We were getting sticks on pucks and just harassing guys coming into our own end,” Staal said. “It makes a huge difference.”
Crosby, the league’s leading point-getter, was held in check all night and finished a minus-two.
“We were outplayed right from the start,” Crosby said.
Lately, the Rangers have figured out a way to stymie Crosby and Malkin. The Blueshirts frustrated the Penguins’ stars with an in-your-face brand of hockey during their 2014 Eastern Conference semifinal comeback. Staal, Mats Zuccarello and Chris Kreider successfully got under the skin of Crosby and co. on Tuesday night.
MOORE SHINES IN RETURN
Importantly, this was John Moore’s first game back after serving a five-game suspension for illegally checking the head of Minnesota Wild forward Erik Haula.
Moore was on his best behavior on Tuesday night. He did not commit a penalty. Crucially, Moore proved to be a difference-maker in his return. The fast-skating defenseman jump-started the Rangers’ attack with his ability to move the puck quickly up the ice.
If Moore can keep his discipline and make good use of his big body, fast legs and powerful shot, he will become the player the Rangers’ organization expected him to become when they acquired him at the 2013 trade deadline.
“We needed a game like this,” Moore said. “We needed one where we had to dig deep and come out with our best effort. We’ve struggled with starts here at home, and we were on our toes from the get-go.”
It’s about getting all the pieces firing together in unison. When asked about the Rangers’ ability to respond to adversity, Stepan said the following:
“It starts with the top of the organization,” Stepan said. “It works its way down to the leaders, and it finishes at our young guys. It’s a whole group making a conscious effort to make sure that we compete.”
What kind of got lost in the shuffle was the performance of star netminder Henrik Lundqvist. The Rangers played so strongly as a unit that it overshadowed King Henrik’s outstanding play between the pipes. Lundqvist made 33 saves to earn the 53rd shutout of his career.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey.