Stepan and Lindberg score 21 seconds apart in Rangers 2-1 win over Avalanche

Oscar Lindberg gets congrats at the bench from Derick Brassard after scoring his seventh of the season highlighting a 2-1 Rangers win over the Avalanche.  AP Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Oscar Lindberg gets congrats at the bench from Derick Brassard after scoring his seventh of the season highlighting a 2-1 Rangers win over the Avalanche.
AP Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

In the first of a back-to-back on the road, the Rangers came away with a 2-1 win over the Avalanche at Pepsi Center Friday night. Derek Stepan and Oscar Lindberg scored 21 seconds apart in the second period to give them their fourth consecutive win.

After 13 games, the Blueshirts are 9-2-2 with their 20 points tops in the Metropolitan Division. They are in first place despite only two combined goals from Chris Kreider and Rick Nash, who sat out with a bad back. His status is day-to-day. We’ll find out later if he’ll return for the Coyotes. It probably makes sense to heed on the side of caution and let him rest up for the Hurricanes back home on Tuesday.

Henrik Lundqvist stopped all 14 Avalanche shots in a busy third. He continues to be the story. In 11 starts, Lundqvist is 7-2-2 with a 1.80 goals-against-average and .945 save percentage. He finished with 29 saves. Facing a dangerous opponent that plays a wide open style, the Swedish King was up to the challenge denying talented Nathan MacKinnon (game high six shots) several times. The Avs’ third-year center beat Lundqvist on the power play for the only goal in the first period.

The Rangers were guilty of a few ill timed penalties. But after giving up one to MacKinnon on Colorado’s first try, they tightened up killing off the last four. That included undisciplined minors from J.T. Miller, Chris Kreider, Oscar Lindberg and Kevin Klein. While it wasn’t perfect, they played well. With Nash out, Alain Vigneault tried Emerson Etem on the top line with Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello. Let’s just say he’s still learning and leave it at that.

For a second straight game, Vigneault started rookie defenseman Dylan McIlrath in place of struggling veteran Dan Boyle. The former 2010 first round pick rewarded him with a strong defensive effort. In 18 effective shifts, he registered four hits with one shots while being used late on the second half of a key penalty kill with Klein off for delay of game. McIlrath made a few good plays in his end taking Avs forwards off the puck with his big body. That included shoving Jarome Iginla to the ice which led to a Colorado penalty.

As the 23-year old Winnipeg native continues to evolve, he could become a important player during a busy season. With Vigneault emphasizing that he wants to give Boyle nights off when the schedule picks up, McIlrath can provide a physical presence the blueline has been lacking since Mike Sauer’s career was ended by Dion Phaneuf. He also should take a look later at keeping vets Dan Girardi and Marc Staal fresh. The 82-game slate can be taxing. Especially when you consider how much they have played the past two years.

Most notably, Stepan snapped a six-game goal drought with his fourth for a power play goal at 12:42 of the second that tied the contest. Off a favorable carom of a Ryan McDonagh wide shot, Mats Zuccarello fed Stepan for a one-time blast that beat Colorado backup Reto Berra. Up till that point, Berra had played extremely well. On the very next shift, he let in a soft goal to Lindberg only 21 seconds later.

Off a sustained forecheck, Lindberg retrieved a puck from McDonagh down low and fired from below the goal line catching Berra leaning. It was a heady play by a smart player who is on a hot streak. The goal tied Lindberg with Zuccarello for the team lead with seven goals. His seven put him in a tie for first with three other players including Alex Ovechkin for most even strength goals (7).

”I didn’t expect to score this many goals,” Lindberg said. ”I’m not trying to think about it too much. I’m just trying to play.”

Call it a lucky seven for the first-year Swedish rookie who is very much an early Calder candidate. It’s too bad that Connor McDavid broke his clavicle. He’s gonna miss significant time. McDavid was off to a sizzling start with 12 points (5-7-12) in his first 13 games. He was tied with Artemi Panarin for first in rookie scoring. Max Domi is third with 11 points. Then Lindberg and Dylan Larkin each have 10. It’s a deep rookie class that also features ex-Ranger Anthony Duclair, Colton Parayko, Sam Bennett and Sabres center Jack Eichel.

”Sometimes when a player feels it, sees it, I always like that bad-angle shot,” Vigneault said. ”I always think it’s a good idea.”

They could’ve made it a little easier on themselves. But that’s not the Ranger way. They had strong shifts with puck possession generating chances. That included another power play in the third. Despite good looks, they were unable to take advantage. Instead, they defended well and let Lundqvist do the rest.

”When we get the lead, we know what to do,” a philosophical Lundqvist said after also thwarting old nemesis Blake Comeau. ”At times, think we sit back a little too much. At the same time, when we’re under pressure, it’s not like we’re panicking, we still know what we need to do.”

The 33-year old netminder needs eight more saves to break the franchise mark held by Mike Richter. His 29 saves gave him 19,397 for his career counting regular season and postseason. Richter holds the record with 19,404. Ironically, it was also Lundqvist’s 742nd appearance which also tied Richter for the most in franchise history.

”It’s surreal at times, because you grew up watching these guys,” Lundqvist said. ”But it’s been a lot of fun to be part of this franchise. Been lucky to be part of it for so long.”

They’re lucky to have him. World class.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Nathan MacKinnon, COL (PPG-6th of season, 6 SOG, 7 attempts in 24 shifts-22:51)

2nd Star-Oscar Lindberg, NYR (GWG-7th of season, +1 in 16 shifts-11:44)

1st Star-Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (29 saves incl. all 14 in busy 3rd)

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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