Stepan and Kreider rally Blueshirts past Lightning

Derek Stepan

Stepan Up: Derek Stepan celebrates one of two goals in a come from behind 3-2 win over the Lightning. He’s been the Rangers’ hottest player with 14 points over the last eight games. AP Photo/Frank Franklin II/Getty Images

Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider remained hot. They rallied the Blueshirts from an early two-goal deficit to a more satisfying 3-2 home win over the Lightning at MSG. Stepan tallied twice and assisted on Kreider’s game-winner with 15:14 left in the third period. The comeback win allowed them to stay two points up on the Islanders, who clinched a playoff berth in a overtime triumph over the Capitals on a Thomas Hickey goal from John Tavares. When they visit the Garden Thursday, third place in the division will be in play.

With 99 points, the Rangers lead the Islanders by two. They also hold the first tiebreaker in regulation/overtime wins with 42 to the Isles’ 39. However, another victory for the Brooklyn rival would give them the upper hand due to having an extra game left. If they can outpoint the Rangers, they can beat them out for third and have to deal with the Penguins, who just don’t lose anymore. They rallied from a 3-0 deficit to beat the Senators 5-3 with old friend Carl Hagelin tallying twice including the game-winner. By prevailing over Ottawa, Pittsburgh is up to 102 with two games remaining. If they earn two points, they will wrap up second place and home ice in the first round.

For now, the Blueshirts will play minus captain Ryan McDonagh, who is out for the rest of the regular season with a “upper-body” injury. It’s suspected to be a small fracture in his right hand after blocking a Brandon Dubinsky shot in Monday’s win over the Blue Jackets. If the top defenseman is out for the first round as New York Post columnist Larry Brooks speculates, it’ll be up to steady vet Marc Staal and Keith Yandle to carry the load on the left side. A night after logging over 25 minutes, Staal had 23:13 in 29 shifts including a monstrous 8:54 while shorthanded with four blocks, an assist and a plus-one rating. He and Kevin Klein (game high 27:24 with 8 hits in 32 shifts) did the heavy lifting that included a momentum shifting five-minute penalty kill on a Tanner Glass interference major that kept the game within reach.

Andrej Sustr and Brian Boyle opened the scoring for the much sharper Lightning, who dominated the first period outshooting the Blueshirts 21-6. Of course, Henrik Lundqvist played a big role in keeping his team only down two. The prideful franchise leader in wins and shutouts turned aside 19 of 21 and then the remaining 20 for a 39-save performance to pick up his 35th win of the season.

”He’s done that for his whole career,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said after his shorthanded club minus Anton Stralman and Steven Stamkos were still able to wrap up a playoff spot despite falling short. ”He kept them close enough to get back in it and that’s what good goalies do. We had ample opportunity to score tonight and they just weren’t going in.”

With Lundqvist able to slam the door shut, it allowed his teammates to gain some traction in their second straight game in two nights. After killing many penalties, they were able to get on the board thanks to a Stepan power play goal from Mats Zuccarello and Yandle, who recorded his team best 41st assist. The sizzling Stepan let one go from the left circle that beat Lightning backup Andrei Vasilevskiy thru a Kreider screen, making it a one-goal game with 3:05 left in the second.

It was Stepan again who caught Vasilevskiy by surprise early in the third with a quick snap shot from the right circle for his 22nd tying the score at 2:33. With a primary helper, it gave Zuccarello two assists increasing his new career best to 61 points (26-35-61). Two better than the 59 he totaled in ’13-14. The pint sized Norwegian with the giant sized heart just went over 300 career games. In 302 games played, Zuke is up to 203 points (71-132-203). After totaling 34 in parts of three seasons under former coach John Tortorella, he’s produced 169 (60-109-169) flourishing under Vigneault.

Stepan wasn’t done. He started the winning play with a smart defensive read to Staal, who was able to hit Kreider with a perfect stretch pass in stride springing him for an electrifying breakaway goal at 4:46. Once he got the puck, the more confident Kreider took off like a jet and then went to his patented backhand deke tucking the puck past Vasilevskiy to loud cheers. His 21st matched last season’s career best. He probably won’t beat the 46 points but this is the best hockey he’s played. Kreider has five goals in the last six and eight points. He’s doing everything right.

Kreider’s USA Hockey buddy Stepan has been even hotter. Three more points gives him 14 (6-8-14) over the last eight. By reaching at least 50 points for the third consecutive season, he became the first Rangers’ center to achieve that since the legendary Wayne Gretzky, who of course did it in his three seasons starring on Broadway. In case you’re wondering, Derick Brassard has 58 points in ’15-16 and 60 in ’14-15. He didn’t hit 50 in ’13-14 with 45 in his first full season while centering the cohesive third line with Zuccarello and Benoit Pouliot.

Lundqvist made the lead stand up. As usual, the Rangers had a couple of hiccups in the defensive zone. The Lightning finally picked up their offensive play. The reformed Triplets Line buzzed during multiple shifts. But the trio of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov was unable to beat Lundqvist, who denied a Johnson bid from in tight.

”He was our best player tonight without a doubt,” Stepan praised of Lundqvist. ”We came out of the first only down 2-0 because of him and he made some big-time saves the rest of the game.”

”As long as you keep it a two-goal game, you know you can turn it around,” a philosophical Lundqvist said. ”You just want that goal on the board and get some momentum.”

The conclusion of the game wasn’t without a scare. On a forecheck, Dan Girardi took a shove from behind by Brian Boyle and fell hard into the boards. Visibly shaken, he laid down on the ice for a few minutes before being helped off. Originally, Boyle wasn’t even going to be penalized. But the officials then assessed him a boarding major and game misconduct with 1:08 remaining.

Not surprisingly, the Garden erupted in chants of “Boyle sucks, Boyle sucks!” In looking at the replay, I didn’t think it was as bad as it could’ve been. He didn’t shove Girardi hard. But it was a push and Girardi lost his balance and went head first into the boards. His status won’t be known until tomorrow. Hopefully, it’s not a head injury. But it sure looked like it. This is Girardi we’re talking about. A warrior who always miraculously recovers. We’ll see.

Lundqvist was forced to make one more big stop on a shorthanded chance from distance kicking out a Johnson shot and then hearing the friendly sound of the goalpost on a Jason Garrison blast. That’s who this team is. They make it more difficult than it should be.

Notes: In a rarity, Vigneault gave Dan Boyle the night off along with Kevin Hayes. Hartford recall Brady Skjei received 24 shifts (16:22) including 5:16 shorthanded. Dylan McIlrath went plus-two in 18 shifts with 12:03 of his 12:31 coming at even strength. It is odd how little faith Vigneault has in McIlrath, whose physical presence could be needed next week. … Oscar Lindberg got out of jail but only played sparingly, taking nine shifts (6:09). What is the point? This coach is something else. After Glass’ ejection, the fourth line hardly played. … One thing Vigneault got right is limiting Girardi to 10:45 at even strength. He’s too slow against a faster opponent. He did log 6:59 shorthanded. … It would be nice if Rick Nash started lighting the lamp before the postseason. There’s only two games left.

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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