It seemed hard for John Moore to suppress a smile when he returned to the Rangers' bench after serving five minutes in the penalty box for fighting. The 22-year-old defenseman looked just as surprised as his teammates, who went wild at the surprising third-period scrap that pitted him against Florida’s Jack Skille and patted him on the back when he emerged the decisive winner.
The unlikely pugilist dropped the gloves for his first NHL fight and his teammates followed suit, beating up on the Panthers for a critical 6-1 win at Madison Square Garden Thursday that keeps the Rangers in the driver’s seat for the postseason.
A spark for the team?
"Absolutely," coach John Tortorella said. "You should’ve heard our bench."
Moore, acquired in a trade with Columbus at the deadline, fought in his first training camp when he was 18 years old -- "I don’t think it went as well" -- but he showed no reluctance to step up for his new team, which was leading 3-1 in the third.
"It’s kind of a new thing for me," Moore said, still smiling. "I’m definitely not gonna quit my day job, but I’m glad I got it out of the way and I’m happy I was able to handle myself."
Moore wasn’t the only new addition to provide the team with some fight, an element that seemed to be lacking in the club’s 4-2 loss to Philadelphia Tuesday night.
Both Mats Zuccarello, brought over from the KHL on a one-year deal last month, and Derick Brassard, acquired with Moore in the deal with Columbus that sent back Marian Gaborik, led the way with two goals each.
"We just made plays tonight," said Brassard. "We played a fast game and we just executed and guys finished. It’s a big win and a big two points for us."
With two nice plays at the end of the third period -- an assist on Zuccarello’s second goal of the night and a wraparound goal with 1:24 to play -- Richards won the Broadway Hat for the team’s MVP performance.
Prior to Thursday, Richards had been held off the score sheet for the past four games.
"I don’t give a crap who contributes, as long as they contribute," Tortorella said. "I don’t give a crap whether new, old, veteran, rookie, as long as we get contributions from everybody. That’s the only way we’re going to find a way."
The Blueshirts needed to find a way Thursday with action percolating both ahead and behind them in the standings.
The Islanders beat the Leafs to maintain a three-point edge in seventh place. The Senators dispatched the streaking Capitals to remain in sixth. And, the Winnipeg Jets edged the Hurricanes in overtime to tie the Rangers with 48 points.
The Rangers, however, remain in eighth place with a game in hand against the Jets.
What does that mean?
With five games left to play, the Rangers control their own destiny while facing a fairly easy schedule.
"The main thing you can ask for is that it’s in our hands," Richards said. "We can do what we need to and it will be on us if something doesn’t happen, but we plan on being there and moving up."
Facing a quick turnaround against the Sabres in Buffalo on Friday, the Rangers then wrap up the regular season with four games against nonplayoff opponents -- New Jersey twice, the Panthers once more and the downtrodden Hurricanes for good measure.
Tortorella wants his club to embrace that control as an opportunity, not a trap.
"You shouldn’t feel pressure and shy away from it," Tortorella said. "Enjoy it, don’t think it’s going to kill you. Enjoy it and test yourself."