By Sean Hartnett
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The Rangers have climbed into first place in the Metropolitan Division without coming close to playing their “A” game. After earning a 4-3 roller-coaster comeback victory over the Arizona Coyotes, the Rangers pulled even on points with the rival Islanders and now stand atop the Metro, having collected 82 points with two games in hand over the Isles.
Whether their execution is on point or they fall into bad habits, this Rangers team simply finds a way to pull out tough victories. The Blueshirts have now won four straight games.
“I think it’s just the maturity of a team that knows we weren’t good enough, needed to be better and didn’t really panic,” winger Lee Stempniak said. “We just took it one shift at a time and slowly took the game over and were able to find a way again.”
The Rangers have extended their point streak to a season-high 10 games. Since Dec. 8, the Rangers have the NHL’s best record at 27-6-2. No team in the league has a higher goal differential than the Rangers’ plus-42.
It was fitting that Stempniak scored two goals, including the game-winner. His resilient performance mirrored the Rangers’ performance as a whole. Stempniak had begun the game in horrendous fashion by frequently fumbling the puck. On one occasion, he made a defensive-zone pass directly to the stick of a Coyote. Stempniak and the Rangers rebounded in a big way.
“It’s good to see him stick with it,” captain Ryan McDonagh said. “He’s a veteran player that knows his strengths and weaknesses. He’s very quick. He’s good getting off the wall and good jumping on the puck on loose chances, like the game-winner. Obviously, everyone is going to make mistakes. It’s about sticking with it. Coach gives him another opportunity and he comes up huge for us tonight.”
Despite the Rangers being in first place, there is plenty of room for improvement. Their continued habit of poor first-period starts, general sloppiness, Cam Talbot’s recent shakiness, Martin St. Louis taking uncharacteristic offensive-zone penalties, Kevin Klein gifting Arizona two power plays — all of this is correctable.
McDonagh says the Rangers are focused on fine-tuning their game because they know things will become more difficult as the stretch run unfolds.
“There’s pride, obviously,” McDonagh said. “You want to do well in your division, but I don’t think that’s the focus right now. We can’t feel good about ourselves because we’re here. We’re going to continue to work at our game and continue to fine-tune because it gets tougher down the road.”
With the Mar. 2 trade deadline edging closer, the Rangers could receive a boost in the form of a bottom-six forward and a solidifying sixth defenseman who’s an upgrade over John Moore and Matt Hunwick.
NO UPDATE ON LUNDQVIST; FAST VERY CLOSE TO RETURNING
Additionally, two difference-making Swedes will eventually return from injury. Henrik Lundqvist has continued skating and taking low shots. The Rangers are yet to provide an update on when Lundqvist will be re-evaluated. His return date from a blood vessel injury is unclear. If the Rangers choose not to acquire an upgrade over current backup goalie Mackenzie Skapski, it’s definitely a sign that Lundqvist is doing well in his recovery.
The Rangers are 10-1-2 in February, and 9-1-2 without Lundqvist.
“I’ve been saying it every day, we just keep finding ways to win hockey games,” alternate captain Derek Stepan said.
It’s possible that 23-year-old winger Jesper Fast recovers from a sprained right knee in time to suit up for Saturday’s game in Philadelphia. Fast skated in a full-contact jersey during Thursday’s morning skate. Prior to Thursday’s victory, head coach Alain Vigneault said that Fast is “one or two practices away” from returning.
The Rangers are getting healthier, and they will likely add a couple of depth pieces before the trade deadline passes. And most importantly, they’re going to eventually find their “A” game.
All of this could culminate in the Rangers winning the Metro.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.