It was the Rangers’ special teams units that earned them an eighth-straight victory Saturday night at Madison Square Garden. Derek Stepan notched a shorthanded, power play and empty-net goal, en route to a hat trick, in a 3-1 win against their Hudson River rivals, the New Jersey Devils.
The hat trick was the third of Stepan’s career. It is also the first time that a Ranger has scored a shorthanded goal, a power play goal and an even-strength goal in a single game since Brendan Shanahan on Dec. 3, 2006. Additionally, Stepan is the first Blueshirt to tally a power play and shorthanded marker in the same game in nearly five years. Brandon Dubinsky was the last to do so on Apr. 12, 2009 at Philadelphia.
“He’s a real smart and effective player,” Head Coach Alain Vigneault said. “I can use him and feel real confident in any situation, whether it is 5-on-5 against top line, whether it is killing or whether it is on the power play. Tonight, when he had an opportunity, he definitely made them pay.”
Entering the game with only four goals, Stepan, sporting the Broadway Hat, was asked about what this did for his confidence: “It (My confidence) is good. I got some fortunate bounces tonight, and I am not going to complain about it.”
What is there to complain about for Stepan? He picked up his first three-goal game since Nov. 2, 2013 at Carolina, and it started off as New York played a man down.
With the Devils on a power play in the latter stages of the opening period, Stepan stole the puck from Travis Zajac at the point and proceeded to go on a breakaway. From there, the University of Wisconsin product went to his backhand and beat Cory Schneider through the five-hole for the contest’s first score.
“I didn’t want to push it (the puck) quite as far as I did, but luckily there was enough snow on the ice to slow it down,” replied Stepan about his first goal of the evening.
“That’s a big play,” stated Henrik Lundqvist about Stepan’s shorthanded tally. “(At the) end of the period and just a big play by Step…Special teams won us the game.”
As the Blueshirts carried that one-goal advantage into the intermission, they were just as hungry to find the back of the net again in the second.
This time, with the extra-man opportunity, Stepan deflected a Martin St. Louis shot from the point past Schneider, giving the Rangers a 2-0 edge.
Less than three minutes later, however, the Devils answered on an odd-man rush. As John Moore was caught behind for New York, the Devs had a 3-on-2 the other way. Once obtaining the offensive zone, Eric Gelinas fed a cross-ice pass to right winger Steve Bernier, who put the puck past the outstretched glove of Lundqvist to cut the deficit in half.
The goal was the first of the new Devils’ coaching merry-go-round between Lou Lamoriello, Adam Oates and Scott Stevens, after former head coach Peter DeBoer was fired nearly 24 hours earlier.
Later on, in the final 60-plus seconds of the period, Gelinas nearly evened the score on the power play, but his shot clanged off the post.
“I didn’t see it,” stated Lundqvist. “I could just hear it, and (Dan) Girardi covered most of it. You just have to try to be in the right place. You don’t always see the puck or what is going on in front of you. You try to be aggressive and try to pick up players and pucks.”
When asked about Vigneault’s comments at the second intermission, Girardi mirrored: “Don’t change anything we are doing. Don’t sit back. Make the plays through the neutral zone clean and get the pucks behind their defense, and work them down low.”
In the third period, the Rangers, who had appeared to listen to the comments from their coach by limiting the Devils to only two shots on goal in the first 10 minutes of the session, were tested late. Clinging to the same one-goal cushion, Lundqvist made a key left pad save on Andy Greene, while the Blueshirt defensemen cleared a couple of loose pucks off the crease to maintain the lead.
That proved to be all Vigneault’s team needed though, as Stepan tossed the puck into the empty net with 54 seconds left to secure the hat trick.
The eight-game winning streak is the Rangers’ first since the 1974-75 campaign. In the current stretch, New York has outscored its opposition by a 27-11 count, including a 23-7 clip over its last seven games.
“I think we believe in each other a lot right now,” Lundqvist said. “We believe in the system and the way we are playing. We gain a lot of confidence, obviously, because of the way we are playing and because we’re winning. You relax a little bit more. You let the game come to you and we just have a lot of fun. It’s a lot of good things.”
The Blueshirts will now hit the road for two straight before the clock ticks to midnight on the New Year.
The NHL’s second-leading goal scorer, Rick Nash, and top goal-getter, Tyler Seguin, face off Monday as the Rangers look to make it nine straight when they face the Stars in Dallas.