PHILADELPHIA -– So many times this season the New York Rangers’ roster, chock full of talent, has failed to live up to expectations.
But not Tuesday night, when the Blueshirts’ best played like it and beat up the Philadelphia Flyers 5-2 to secure a crucial two points amidst a critical three-game road trip.
Rangers coach John Tortorella has repeatedly stressed the need for his top players to contribute, and they answered with a well-rounded effort that matched the team’s season high in terms of production.
Derek Stepan was outstanding to lead the way, finishing with a career-high four points (one goal, three assists) while centering a reconfigured and explosive first line with speedy winger Carl Hagelin to his left and star forward Rick Nash flanking him to the right.
“My job’s pretty easy with those two guys,” Stepan said. “So, I’m going to stick with that.”
Nash tallied twice and added an assist in a three-point effort, making it a sure bet the trio will be one that Rangers fans see with more consistency in the future.
“I think Carl’s speed alone really backs their [defense] off and it gives time for a guy like Rick Nash to get a little space,” Stepan said. “And when he gets space, he’s a special player."
Even Tortorella, who juggles lines as frequently as any coach in the league, will be reluctant to break up the line after seeing what it accomplished Tuesday.
“It’s been an effective line,” said Tortorella, who earned his 400th career win Tuesday. “I consider that our top line. They’ve probably been our most consistent players this year so we put them together.”
Tortorella used rookie forward J.T. Miller to center a second line between Marian Gaborik and captain Ryan Callahan and dropped struggling center Brad Richards to the third line with Chris Kreider and Brian Boyle.
The demotion hardly seemed like one for Richards, who scored his first goal since March 10 with a high slap shot in the second period. With that power-play marker (the 250th goal of his career) and an assist on Kreider’s game-sealing goal in the third, Richards registered his third multipoint game of the season.
“I think it was just good for the team that we scored five goals as a group,” Richards said. “You get five as a team and everybody feels a little looser and, next practice, you’ll notice a difference right away.”
All those moves seemed to pay off as the Rangers sustained a scoring attack even when the Flyers rallied in the third period.
After Wayne Simmonds, who returned to the game after being hit in the face with a puck, got the Flyers on the board in the second, Philly cut the lead to 3-2 with Claude Giroux’s slap shot that clipped Jakub Voracek in the face and squirted through Henrik Lundqvist at 6:28 in the third.
Nash then snuffed out Philadelphia’s surge with a wraparound goal that put the Rangers up 4-2 shortly after the Flyers pulled within a score.
“That fourth goal was a relief,” said Henrik Lundqvist, who finished with 32 saves. “It kind of killed their momentum.”
Tortorella even switched up the defensive pairings, promoting Michael Del Zotto to play with defenseman Dan Girardi. Del Zotto finished with two assists while logging 26 minutes, 59 seconds of ice time on the team’s top pair.
“This is a huge part of his process. Can he sustain it?” Tortorella said. “Sometimes when he plays really well he forgets a little bit and he just loses himself, but I really think he’s shown a maturity as far as preparing and this is a building he’s had struggles in before. I thought he played very well tonight.”
It won’t be just Del Zotto trying to sustain his play, but the Rangers’ team as a whole.
In eighth place with 35 points, the Rangers now travel to Ottawa where they face the fifth-place Senators on Thursday before concluding their road trip with Saturday’s match against the fourth-place Canadiens in Montreal.