By Sean Hartnett
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The Rangers entered Sunday’s home meeting against the Vancouver Canucks on a high, having rolled off three consecutive wins and having outscored opponents 10-0 at even strength over that span. But when the puck is dropped, all of these pretty stats suddenly lose meaning. No player on the ice thinks about game-to-game trends and streaks.
Hockey coaches demand the repetition of good habits. Good habits can spark dominant periods of hockey. Dominant periods of hockey can turn into wins, and a whole lot of repetition can lead to winning streaks.
The Rangers defeated the visiting Canucks via the shootout, 4-3, extending their overall winning streak to four and pushing their home winning streak to eight. It was a particularly meaningful win because the Rangers jumped into a playoff position, having begun November 9-2-0 after finishing October 4-7-2.
At the moment, the Rangers own the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. They have cut the gap between them and the Metropolitan Division-leading New Jersey Devils to four points.
Though the Rangers secured a victory Sunday, a poor first period served as a warning sign. The Blueshirts snoozed through the first 20 minutes and were outshot 11-4 in the opening frame. Maybe the one exception was Michael Grabner, who went after loose pucks with gusto and drove plays into the offensive zone. The Rangers began the afternoon with sloppy execution, frequently turning over the puck without being pressured.
“It was sloppy today,” goaltender Henrik Lundqvist said. “I felt like we can play a lot better. A lot of turnovers, but in the end it’s about finding a way to win, and we did, and it’s big.”
One lackluster period can put a team behind the eight ball, and the Rangers were forced to play catch-up for the entire game, having never held a lead. It wasn’t until late in the second period that the Blueshirts started playing with the required level of energy and execution. Soon after, Jesper Fast was able to claw into Vancouver’s lead, tipping in Nick Holden’s shot to cut the deficit to 2-1.
“There’s no doubt everyone in our room was aware of our first period today,” head coach Alain Vigneault said. “They had about six scoring chances, all grade A. We didn’t generate much. That goal at the end of the second period helped us get some energy and start to make a couple more plays in the third period. At the end of the day, what I can say about today’s game is sometimes good teams find ways to win games when they don’t play their best. That was definitely the case today.”
It was one of those “it’s not how you start but how you finish” games for the Rangers. Grabner would use his jets to score a tying goal at 19 seconds into the third period. Sam Gagner would regain Vancouver’s lead 41 seconds later.
The Rangers pulled even at 5:05 of the third period on a rapid end-to-end rush. Jimmy Vesey made big plays on both ends of the ice and finished a spin-o-rama feed from Rick Nash. Both teams played with frantic desperation in the overtime period, but the contest was ultimately settled in a seven-round shootout, with Vesey scoring the winning goal.
Following the victory, the Rangers lead the NHL with 10 home wins and 22 home points.
“We have to feel good about what we’ve been doing here the past four weeks,” Lundqvist said. “Our record is really good, but this league is so competitive that if you start to think that you’re that good – you can forget about yourself, but don’t fool yourself – you have to earn it every night and prepare a certain way and put in the effort all the time to get any points. We had a tough time, but we got it done tonight with a really strong third. But we should definitely feel good about how we’re playing and finding ways to win games. That’s going to help us moving forward.”
Lately, the Rangers have gotten away with sloppy starts but have been able to finish strong in come-from-behind victories. Poor starts were recurrent during their October woes, but the Rangers are a more resilient and confident bunch at the 24-game mark.
“It was a little bit of a slow start,” Nash said. “We have to try to figure out our first periods in the next few days. Good teams find ways to win the games that they don’t play their best, and I thought we did that.”
Every season is a work in progress. November has been a strong month for the Blueshirts, but there’s still areas of their game that need to be smoothed out. The Rangers will finish their November schedule at home against the Florida Panthers on Tuesday.
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