By Sean Hartnett
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Thanks to the heroics of rescue artists Mats Zuccarello and Derick Brassard and a return to structured five-man hockey, the Rangers chased away the holiday blues.
During their 3-2 overtime victory over the Anaheim Ducks on Tuesday night, the Blueshirts recaptured the appropriate execution level just in time for a four-day festive break. While packing his equipment away, alternate captain Derek Stepan offered a rosy prediction for the future.
“Going forward, if we make sure our defense is strong and playing the right way defensively and that (Kreider-Brassard-Zuccarello) line scores offensively — we’ll have a lot of success,” he said. “Their line scored big-time goals for us tonight.”
Tuesday’s effort and execution are things the Rangers can hang their hats on. The bar has now been set. When they return to action in Nashville next Monday, they must keep the good habits going.
“I think it was definitely a lot better,” Stepan said. “There’s still some things that need to be cleaned up. Both teams were obviously very focused on playing defense. We’ve got to make sure we continue to play that way. What’s given us success every year is playing good defense.”
Despite Anaheim owning the worst record in the Western Conference (12-15-6), the importance of the Rangers’ victory should not be minimized. The Ducks are armed with the talent to forge a second-half run, provided they turn their season around sooner rather than later. Just like the Rangers, only a whisker separated the Ducks from reaching last season’s Stanley Cup Final. With both teams laboring their way toward the holiday break, Tuesday’s game had much in common with a late-round playoff encounter, given the emphasis on defense and the combatants running on reserve power.
“Our group, we just stuck with it,” Stepan said. “We could have easily folded it in and not found a way to compete. We just keep going, keep going.”
Under head coach Alain Vigneault’s leadership, the Rangers’ M.O. is finding a way to win – even when their bodies are hitting a wall and legs are weary.
“It’s going to make Christmas a lot better,” Stepan said. “I think we had a tough go in Winnipeg and Minnesota. We come back home and play against a Washington Capitals team that’s playing at a high level and we weren’t playing at a high level. They took advantage of it and took it to us. At that point, our only focus was to try to find a way to get a win going into Christmas.”
At 20-12-4, the Rangers enter the break eight points behind red-hot Washington. With the Capitals having the benefit of three games in hand, pulling closer to the Metropolitan Division leaders will be no easy task.
“It’s a big win,” alternate captain Marc Staal said. “It’s been a missing feeling in this room, for sure. It’s nice to go into the break with that confidence of winning the game. We’re going to have our hands full coming off the break going on the road. So, enjoy the time off, decompress and then get ready for another grind.”
Vigneault was pleased with how his top two lines fared against Ducks centers Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler, with Getzlaf centering former “Rocket” Richard winner Corey Perry.
“We were able to find a way to get it done in overtime,” Vigneault said. “Brass’s line was real big for us tonight. I thought Step’s line did a great job against Getzlaf and we found a way to win.”
With their winning blueprint in hand, the Rangers are finally feeling some Christmas cheer.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey