The young and pesky Colorado Avalanche are starting to look up in the Western Conference playoff race.
Back in the East, the slumping and veteran-laden New York Rangers have their focus squarely behind them.
Semyon Varlamov made 41 saves, and rookie Gabriel Landeskog scored the deciding goal in the Avalanche’s 3-1 victory over the Rangers on Saturday night.
Varlamov was the ultimate difference for the Avalanche, who moved into seventh place in the tight Western playoff race. New York lost for the fifth time in seven games, and their once seemingly comfortable lead on top of the East is nearly gone.
Landeskog gave the Avalanche a 2-1 lead in the second period, and Varlamov made it stand up as the team finished a 2-0-1 Eastern road trip. The Avalanche, who moved ahead of idle Phoenix, beat the Rangers and Buffalo, and earned a point with a shootout loss at New Jersey in a span of four days.
”To get five out of six points is huge for us,” the 19-year-old Landeskog said. ”We knew it was going to be a big road trip against good teams, and we just kind of took it one game at a time. That’s the way we’ve got to do it coming down the stretch and have fun with it.”
This recent stretch has been anything but fun for the Rangers, who still have the second-most points in the NHL, but are only two ahead of the surging Pittsburgh Penguins, who have won 11 straight.
”We can’t get discouraged,” Rangers coach John Tortorella said.
The Rangers lost their second straight, and for the fifth in seven games. The Penguins, who beat New Jersey earlier Saturday to close within two points, can get even with the Rangers with a win Sunday in Philadelphia.
Colorado leads Phoenix by two points, but the Avalanche have played two more games than the Coyotes. The next three teams – Calgary, Los Angeles and San Jose – are squarely in the hunt, too.
”If we stay in the playoff picture, those teams still have to win their games, too,” Colorado coach Joe Sacco said. ”It’s a tight race. It’s competitive, it’s fun. We’re trying to enjoy it, but at the same time there is obviously some pressure that goes along with it.
”Our young group has responded very well, for the most part.”
Defenseman Matt Hunwick got the Avalanche even in the first period after Mats Zuccarello gave the Rangers a 1-0 lead. Henrik Lundqvist returned from a two-game absence caused by the flu and made 18 saves in the loss.
Paul Stastny added an empty-net, power-play goal with 13.1 seconds left to make it 3-1.
New York also got back captain Ryan Callahan (bruised foot) and defenseman Michael Del Zotto (hip), but it wasn’t enough. The Rangers have lost two straight at home, after winning six in a row there, and have three games remaining on a seven-game homestand.
They had their chances against Varlamov, but only got one puck past him. Brandon Dubinsky ripped a drive at him seven minutes into the third, but Varlamov went down in a split and made a lunging grab with his glove.
”I think their goalie kind of saved the day for them,” Lundqvist said. ”We played really well. We created a lot of chances.
”If we just get another goal, maybe two more goals, I think we’d all sit in here and feel pretty good about ourselves.”
Later in the period, the Rangers had golden opportunities during a power play. Zuccarello hit the post with a drive, then got stuffed in front before Brad Richards was also denied from in-close. Another advantage in the final five minutes also proved fruitless as New York went 0 for 5 on the power play.
”You look at the shot discrepancy, it’s pretty easy to figure out,” Sacco said of the wide margin in shots. ”Five power plays, 10 minutes of killing penalties. Five-on-five, if we could’ve played the game more on that level, then it would’ve been a little bit closer.”
Despite dominating with a 26-13 shots edge through 40 minutes, the Rangers trailed 2-1 going into the third.
Landeskog gave the Avalanche a 2-1 lead with his 21st goal – tops among NHL rookies – at 9:51 of the second.
”It was nice to see it squeak in, and I definitely kept that puck,” Landeskog said. ”It was unbelievable. It was probably one of the best buildings we played in this year. It was extremely loud out there, which is always a lot of fun.”
The Avalanche had control of the puck more in the second period than the first and deftly created several turnovers by the Rangers that either thwarted New York chances or set up opportunities for Colorado.
New York surely was frustrated to be in a 1-1 tie through the first period, despite having a 16-6 edge in shots.
”I knew it would be a tough game coming in here with the crowd and the noise,” Varlamov said. ”It’s always very hot here, and I sweat a lot. I got more comfortable as the game went on.”
Zuccarello, in his fourth game back with the Rangers since being recalled from the AHL last week, netted his first of the season 10:43 in. The 5-foot-7 winger worked his way to the front of the net, got his stick on Dan Girardi’s shot from the right wing boards, and steered it between Varlamov’s pads – even with defenseman Erik Johnson leaning on his back.
It was Zuccarello’s first goal since March 6, 2011 – a span of 16 NHL games – and the seventh of his career. The goal also was the first in three games scored by someone other than the potent line combination of Marian Gaborik, Richards, and Carl Hagelin, who had netted the past seven.
Notes: The Rangers were without C Artem Anisimov (shoulder) and D Steve Eminger. … D Tim Erixon was recalled from Connecticut of the AHL and was in the Rangers’ lineup. … Colorado is 10-2 against the Rangers in the last 12 meetings. … The Avalanche have allowed only one man-advantage goal in nine games (20 of 21).