NEW YORK — The New York Rangers have been a team searching for answers since the end of November. With five wins in 18 games entering Tuesday night’s contest with the league-leading Dallas Stars, it seemed unlikely the Rangers would come away with a victory.
Not only did the Rangers emerge victorious, they did so in dominating fashion.
Center Derek Stepan scored twice and left winger Rick Nash added three assists as the Rangers trounced the Stars 6-2 in front of a sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden.
Stepan scored 1:56 into the game then added the team’s first shorthanded goal of the season early in the third period to put the Rangers ahead 4-1. Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist stopped just 21 shots as the Rangers suffocated the NHL’s highest scoring team for nearly the entire game.
“I think against a team like Dallas, the best scoring team in the league, you have to be smart with the puck,” Lundqvist said. “Your awareness needs to be really high, especially in your own zone. I think we played with poise and awareness.”
“We took advantage of some mistakes that they made and I think defensively we
did a lot of good things,” Stepan said. “I think our last couple games defensively, we’ve been much, much better.”
While the Rangers are 3-2-0 in their past five games, the Stars concluded a stretch of three games in four nights with three losses, the first time they have dropped that many in a row this season. Center Tyler Seguin and left winger Jamie Benn, two of the NHL’s three top scorers, were benched for most of the third period.
“We played stupid hockey and it’s not good enough,” Benn said. “It’s pretty plain and simple. We’re here to do a job and we didn’t do it tonight. … I played a terrible game.”
“They had a rough night,” Stars coach Lindy Ruff said. “They aren’t excluded from having a tough night. We need those guys. They’re your best players most nights and they push you through. They’re going through a tough spot right now.”
The Stars had a couple chances early to stay close despite their road-weary legs. After Stepan made it 1-0, defenseman John Klingberg responded with a goal to pull the Stars even at 1. But 18 seconds later, defenseman Keith Yandle’s long-distance wrist shot found its way through traffic and ricocheted off Stars defenseman Jyrki Jokipokka and behind goaltender Antti Niemi to restore the lead for the Rangers.
“I like the fact that when they scored, we came right back and we responded right away with a big goal,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said.
Center Derick Brassard put the Rangers on top 3-1 with 2:37 remaining in the second period, as he tucked a puck through Niemi, who made 23 saves, but would not have been credited with a goal without Stars defenseman Johnny Oduya tapping the puck across the goal line.
After Stepan’s short-handed goal, left winger Viktor Stalberg increased the lead to 5-1. Stars left winger Antoine Roussel and Rangers right winger Jayson Megna exchanged goals to complete the scoring in a third period that also featured a goal by Stars center Jason Spezza that was overturned when video review revealed the Stars entered the zone offside.
The Rangers won’t play again until Saturday and the opponent doesn’t get any easier; the East-leading Washington Capitals come to MSG three weeks after thrashing the Rangers here 7-3.
Only then will the Rangers know if they are finally turning a corner or if this was them taking advantage of an exhausted team on an off night.
“We’ll see against Washington,” Vigneault said. “Every time, you talk about taking steps. If you analyze or process, our process has been getting better. We are playing better hockey right now.
“I’m hoping these are strides in the right direction.”