Erik Christensen set the tone by scoring the first of his two goals just 21 seconds into the contest, and the Rangers played an extremely inspired game in defeating the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-1 on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden.
With their victory, the Rangers -- 6-1-1 in their last eight games -- now have 84 points, one behind the Boston Bruins for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Blueshirts also trail the seventh-place Philadelphia Flyers by only two points; and the two clubs will close out the regular season with a huge home-and-home set Friday at MSG and Sunday afternoon at the Wachovia Center.
“We wanted to make the Philly games count, and they do now,” said Rangers head coach John Tortorella. “It’s within us now. We don’t have to look at the (score)board anymore. It’s right in front of us. It’s going to be in our building and in their building.”
Henrik Lundqvist, who was pulled from Tuesday’s 5-2 defeat up in Buffalo, rebounded with a solid 26-save performance. Brandon Dubinsky played a strong all-around game and finished with a pair of assists, while Christensen contributed his second two-goal game of the season.
Lundqvist lost his shutout bid with 11:51 left to play when Toronto’s Dion Phaneuf powered a slap shot through a screen and into the cage to make the score 3-1. Just under three minutes later, Olli Jokinen batted the puck off of Toronto goalie Jonas Gustavsson to restore the Rangers’ three-goal lead. And with 7:25 remaining Aaron Voros notched his third goal of the season to put the game away.
“We stayed cool and played smart the whole game,” said Lundqvist. “We have showed that when we play our best, we are a pretty good team. And today we just went after them, didn’t react. We took charge. That’s when we are at our best.”
Less than 24 hours after their disappointing loss to the Sabres, the desperate Rangers exploded for a three-goal first period as they thoroughly dominated the Maple Leafs all over The Garden ice.
The onslaught began just 21 seconds into the game’s first shift when Christensen jammed a Dubinsky centering pass from behind the net underneath Gustavsson. So emotional was Christensen over his first goal in 13 games that he threw himself full force into the glass behind Toronto’s net to celebrate as the crowd erupted.
“This is the start you wish for, especially in the situation in which we are at,” said Vinny Prospal. “I think the team responded and came out of the gate really strong, and that set the tone for the entire game.”
Following Christensen’s game-opening goal the Rangers sent wave after wave of determined forecheckers into the offensive zone, creating numerous turnovers and scoring chances in the process. So relentless were the Rangers that just eight minutes into the contest they already held an 11-1 advantage in shots on goal.
Gustavsson, however, was fantastic between the pipes for the Maple Leafs, turning aside one excellent scoring chance after another for the home team. Finally midway through the period Gustavsson was broken by the Rangers, who scored twice in a 30-second span to triple their advantage.
“It’s great to see how we took control of the game and didn’t wait for anything to happen,” said Lundqvist. “We made sure that we set the tempo. We did a good job.”
Prospal scored at 10:26 and Christensen added his second of the period at 10:56 to boost the Rangers’ lead to 3-0.
Prospal cashed in the rebound of Olli Jokinen’s foiled breakaway attempt. Michal Rozsival hit Jokinen in perfect stride with a gorgeous blueline-to-blueline pass that sent the center in alone on Gustavsson. The Maple Leafs goalie made a terrific pad stop, but Prospal, trailing the play, hammered the rebound into the back of the cage to put the Rangers up 2-0.
The goal was Prospal’s 20th of the season, marking the fifth time in his NHL career that Prospal has reached the 20-goal plateau.
“It’s a great play by Vinny Prospal just following up,” said Tortorella. “You see so many players watch and they don’t get that chance or that opportunity to score. It was a big goal for us.”
On the very next shift, the Rangers struck again. Dubinsky stole the puck at center ice, quickly sent a pass to Marian Gaborik at the blueline, and Gaborik, in turn, sent Christensen in with a perfect saucer pass towards the middle of the ice. Christensen slipped a backhand shot between Gustavsson’s pads for his second goal of the game, and eighth of the season.
Gaborik earned an assist on the goal, his 84th overall point on the season, establishing a new single-season career-best. He had previously recorded 83 points with the Minnesota Wild two seasons ago.
“It’s nice, but the most important thing, for me and everyone else in this room, is to win the next two games,” Gaborik said of reaching 84 points.
The Rangers came within inches of taking a four-goal lead in the first period, but Chris Drury’s left-wing slap shot off a shorthanded rush caught the crossbar behind Gustavsson at 17:25. In all, the Rangers fired 18 shots on goal in their dominating first period.
The second period was scoreless and more evenly played, although the Rangers remained in control throughout. Lundqvist was strong when challenged, which was not all that often. His best save actually came late in the opening period when he robbed Phil Kessel on a breakaway with 20 seconds to play.
At 13:43 of the second Christensen had thoughts of a hat trick dancing through his head when he burst past the Toronto defense and sped one-on-one towards Gustavsson. But before he could unleash a shot, Christensen lost control of the puck and it rolled off his stick before being pushed aside by Gustavsson.
“He could have had three or four goal tonight the way he was playing,” Gaborik said of Christensen.
Along with their offensive outburst, strong play in goal, and overall energetic effort, the Rangers also stood up to the Maple Leafs, one of the more physical clubs in the NHL this season. Jody Shelley engaged in a long heavyweight fight with former Ranger Colton Orr 2:25 into the game, and the Blueshirts followed by initiating physical play the remainder of the game.
When Gaborik was crushed from behind by Toronto defenseman Jeff Finger, Dubinsky immediately jumped to his rescue, earning double minor for roughing while throwing Finger to the ice at 8:14 of the second period.
And Brandon Prust, who was whirling dervish all night long, was a thorn in the collective side of the Maple Leafs, agitating at will, while also standing up to the rugged Phaneuf as the horn sounded to end the second period.
Now the Rangers will need to bring this same level of intensity, and even more, into the final weekend of the regular season. The Rangers hold their destiny in their own hands. Win both games, and they will have a fifth straight postseason berth.
“It’s definitely do-able, but I think it’s important that we don’t look at two games and instead just focus on one game,” said Lundqvist. “We need to put all of our energy and focus into one game. If we win that one, we move on.”
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