NEW YORK, N.Y. – From their coach and throughout the dressing room, the New York Rangers shake their heads with disinterest whenever someone mentions one of their many accomplishments in a stellar regular season.
Not only don’t they care about the achievements, sometimes they aren’t even aware of them.
Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards scored early, and defenceman Michael Del Zotto had two goals in the third period as the NHL-leading Rangers won their fourth in a row and moved closer to securing the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs with a 4-1 victory over the Montreal Canadiens on Friday night.
It is only the third time in franchise history that the Rangers have won 50 games in a season.
“It doesn’t mean squat. I will tell you right now it means absolutely nothing,” New York coach John Tortorella said. “It’s about how we’re playing as we go through these next four games against tough opponents. It’s about our game going into the playoffs. You get measured by the playoffs.”
That picture is becoming clearer each day for the Rangers, who hold a five-point lead over the Pittsburgh Penguins in the East and a one-point edge over Western Conference-leading St. Louis in the race for the NHL’s top mark.
Any combination of three points gained by the Rangers or lost by Pittsburgh, and one earned by New York or lost by Philadelphia will end the pursuit for first in the East.
“We don’t focus on them,” Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist said. “I don’t really care if they are winning or losing.”
Lundqvist was steady throughout in winning for the third straight game and for the sixth time in seven. He won at Minnesota and at Winnipeg to get to 250 NHL victories, and helped the Rangers widen their lead. His best stop of the night came two minutes into the third period when he denied David Desharnais on a breakaway to keep the score at 2-0.
Rene Bourque spoiled Lundqvist’s chances of a shutout when he scored with 2:29 left to make it 4-1. Lundqvist made 19 saves.
“The last three or four games, we really responded in a good way,” Lundqvist said. “You’re going to have games where you feel like you can do a lot better, but overall our consistency over the last week has been great. Everybody understands how we have to play to have success.”
Gaborik scored in the first period and Richards had a power-play goal in the second for the Rangers (50-21-7), who are 6-1 since a 2-5 skid earlier this month. Del Zotto also had a man-advantage goal.
“I didn’t even know tonight was 50,” Del Zotto said. “Knowing now, it’s great but it’s not something we’re going to be satisfied with. We want to keep moving forward. We’d like to win the rest of our games.
“We know we’re at the top of the standings, but it’s not something we’re really that focused on. We just want to peak come playoff time and get all the kinks out of our game.”
Carey Price was sturdy and made 25 saves for the disappointing Canadiens (29-35-14), who played their first game since general manager Pierre Gauthier was fired, and team adviser Bob Gainey left on Thursday.
“The heart was in the game,” Canadiens coach Randy Cunneyworth said. “It’s an awfully good team that we are trying to outwork, and I thought we outworked and had some zone time.
“They have a lot going for them. They are a very good team, as everyone knows. We knew it would be a tough task, but I like the fact that we worked hard.”
The Rangers came into this game facing a lot less pressure because their lead in the East grew this week from one point to five over Pittsburgh, which surprisingly lost twice to the out-of-contention New York Islanders.
Although there wasn’t much action over the first two periods, the Rangers scored once in each frame and were never threatened by the Canadiens, who are just hoping to escape the East cellar. This low position is quite unfamiliar to Montreal, which won the Stanley Cup for the first time on this date in 1916.
Gaborik got the Rangers going 8:59 in when he took a second whack at a rebound of Richards’ shot in the slot and slid the puck inside the left post for his 39th goal.
Richards made it 2-0 just 30 seconds into the second. He took a pass from Derek Stepan at the blue line, skated into the high slot, and snapped in his 25th goal. New York took advantage of a penalty for too many men on the ice called against Montreal in the final minute of the first period.
Del Zotto scored a rare power-play goal 8:17 into the third, firing a shot that squeezed past Price. He made it 4-0 with 3:02 remaining, scoring his 10th of the season. Gaborik and Richards earned assists on the final goal.
Although their power play came in ranked third from the bottom in the NHL at 14.7 per cent, the Rangers are remarkably efficient when they cash in—going 24-1-4 in games in which they score a power-play goal.
The Rangers are 4 for 9 on the power play in the past two games.
“With the skill we have, we’re going to be able to score goals,” Del Zotto said. “You see just the way we’re moving the puck, we’re moving bodies.
“We’re not predictable. Teams don’t know exactly where we’re going to be attacking from or what’s going to be happening. That’s what makes us deadly right now.”
NOTES: Lundqvist has held opponents to two goals or fewer 40 times this season, including six of the past eight. … Rangers captain Ryan Callahan was given the team’s Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award before the game. He and Adam Graves are the only three-time winners. … The Canadiens and Rangers split the four-game season series.