The New York Rangers are in agreement that being in first place at the two-day Christmas break doesn’t guarantee anything come April.
But after three wins in four nights against Atlantic Division foes, the Broadway Blueshirts are more than happy to be on top of the pack.
Henrik Lundqvist made 28 saves in his second win over powerful Philadelphia this season, and rookie defenseman Stu Bickel had two more assists for the Rangers, who beat the Flyers 4-2 on Friday night.
Though only 33 of 82 games have been played, the Rangers trail just the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference — and the gap is one point.
”There is something to be said for that,” captain Ryan Callahan said. ”We’re right there at the top, and that gives us confidence going forward. There’s still a lot of hockey to be played, and we haven’t seen our best yet.”
Rangers coach John Tortorella is pleased with his team’s performance and how the club responded to this week’s challenge by beating New Jersey, the New York Islanders and Philadelphia.
As for the significance of being in first place now, Tortorella uttered a terse, ”None.”
Bickel, in his third NHL game, helped set up goals by Derek Stepan and Ruslan Fedotenko in the second period. He has four assists since being recalled from the AHL, hitting the score sheet in every game. Of the Rangers’ seven assists in the game, six were earned by defensemen.
”It’s been awesome,” Bickel said of his brief NHL stint. ”It has been a whirlwind since being called up, but it’s nice being able to jump in and kind of play a role right away and contribute a little bit.”
Marian Gaborik added his league-leading 21st goal early in the third period and Callahan netted a power-play tally for the Rangers (21-8-4), who jumped over the Flyers (21-9-4) in the Atlantic with their fourth straight win.
Fans chanted, ”First Place!” as the final minutes ticked down.
The Flyers own the NHL’s best road record (13-4-2), but you wouldn’t know it from their two trips to Madison Square Garden, where they have scored only two goals. The Rangers beat them 2-0 on Nov. 26 behind Lundqvist’s 29 saves.
”We played a great game,” Lundqvist said. ”Everyone was ready for it. It was a great test. We really wanted to end this week in a good way going into the break. We feel good about ourselves, our game and where we are right now.”
Andrej Meszaros spoiled Lundqvist’s bid for another shutout when he scored a power-play goal with 9:39 left, and James van Riemsdyk made it 4-2 with 2:10 to go.
Philadelphia’s offense was hampered without center Danny Briere, who missed the game because of an injury to his right ring finger, sustained in Wednesday’s 4-1 win at Dallas. The Flyers, who entered with a league-high 116 goals and 3.52 per game, are 1-2-1 since a seven-game winning streak.
”We had all of our skill guys out,” Flyers forward Jaromir Jagr said. ”On our chances, we just didn’t have any clear looks to the net, and when we did, Henrik was stopping it.”
Ilya Bryzgalov made 20 saves in the loss.
The Flyers’ next chance to knock off the Rangers will come on Jan. 2 in the outdoor Winter Classic in Philadelphia.
”I think it builds up for the Winter Classic,” Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said. ”We’ve got a few games we need to take care of before that. The Rangers are a good team, we’ve had a good year. It probably does add a little fuel.”
The Rangers broke the scoreless deadlock with the first of their two deflected goals in the second period.
Stepan made it 1-0 at 10:18 when he got the blade of his stick on a right-point drive by Bickel and squeezed the puck just inside the right post, past the surprised Bryzgalov, who thrust his head up in disbelief.
Bickel struck again 5:12 later when another shot from the right point caught the stick of Fedotenko, surged into the net off the back bar and bounded back out. The red light went on and the Rangers began to celebrate, but the goal was waved off by the officials. At the next stoppage, a video review determined the goal was good. It was Fedotenko’s fifth of the season, but his first point in 10 games since he scored Dec. 3 at Tampa Bay.
Gaborik broke free and gave the Rangers a 3-0 lead 1:48 into the third. The goal came with a painful price as he was struck near his left shoulder by the stick of Meszaros. No one has been able to slow him down recently as Gaborik scored for the fourth straight game, with six goals in the spurt.
Callahan made it 4-1 with 5:56 remaining.
While there was a shortage of offense and even quality scoring chances in the first period, there were plenty of hard hits and even a few rarely seen hip checks. The biggest was delivered by Rangers defenseman Anton Stralman, who wiped out Flyers forward Matt Read by driving him into the boards in front of the Philadelphia bench with just over 9 minutes left.
The Flyers controlled most of the period and held the Rangers without a shot until Michael Del Zotto’s drive from the left point was deflected by Bryzgalov’s blocker and off the crossbar with 5:35 remaining. After being outshot 6-0, the Rangers made a strong recovery and finished the period at 8 shots apiece.
New York outhit Philadelphia 15-6 in the first, with Bickel recording five.
NOTES: Bickel had only four points — one goal and three assists – in 27 games this season with Connecticut of the AHL. … Jagr played his first game at Madison Square Garden since May 1, 2008, during his final season with the Rangers before going to Russia’s KHL. He heard boos often when he touched the puck.