Rangers head into break on top

There were plenty of convenient excuses available for the Rangers heading into Tuesday’s match against Winnipeg -- an emotional letdown after Saturday’s dramatic win over Boston, the temptation to look ahead toward a five-day break, an oversight of a struggling and tired Jets squad.

The Rangers employed none of these in a 3-0 win over Winnipeg in which goaltender Henrik Lundqvist recorded his fifth shutout of the season.

In avoiding all the potential pitfalls, the Rangers head into the league’s All-Star break in sole possession of first place in the Eastern Conference standings.

“We can enjoy the break for sure now,” said center Brian Boyle. “We’ve been pretty happy with the way we’ve played and the way we’ve responded to challenges.”

The 31-12-4 Blueshirts have won their last two games, including their third straight against Winnipeg this season, to stabilize after an inconsistent stretch in the last lap before the league-mandated respite this month. Before Saturday’s morale-boosting victory over the Stanley Cup Champion Bruins, the Rangers had dropped three of five games.

“This game worried me,” coach John Tortorella admitted. “After an emotional game in Boston, a team that played back-to-back and are a little banged-up, you wonder how your players feel about it. I think that’s why we’ve gotten the points we have so far. I don’t think we’ve looked by anything. There have been a number of trap games and I think they’ve handled themselves well.”

One of the team’s three All-Stars, Lundqvist led the team with a 22-save shutout -- the 40th of his career – even after a surprise appearance in net. He learned from goaltender coach Benoit Allaire Tuesday morning he’d be starting between the pipes instead of backup Martin Biron, who was out sick with the flu.

“I was almost in vacation mode,” Lundqvist admitted. “But I had time to regroup and think about what I had to do and how I had to play to be successful.”

Captain Ryan Callahan finished with a goal and an assist, John Mitchell recorded his third goal in five games and Brad Richards halted an eight-game goalless skid with his third-period marker that added an insurance goal to knock off the Jets.

“It’s coming, little by little,” Tortorella said.

With a firm clutch on the top spot in the East, the Rangers will have almost a week to relish their accomplishments, rest and recharge before the real grind begins.

Then, it’s back to work.

“We still know we have parts of our game that we have to improve. Personally, I know there’s part of my game I have to improve as well,” Lundqvist said. “We just have to keep challenging ourselves to get better and the challenge is to just stay on top. So far it’s been a good ride.”