NEW YORK -- It was a rough start to the night for the line of Chris Kreider, Derek Stepan and Mats Zuccarello. Hemmed in for much of their first three shifts against the Carolina Hurricanes, the three found themselves benched for almost half of the first period.
Once out of coach Alain Vigneault’s doghouse, however, they made the most of their second chance.
Scoreless through the first 12 games of the season, Stepan finally found the back of the net, rattling off three goals for his second career hat trick as the Rangers dismantled the Hurricanes 5-1 Saturday night at Madison Square Garden.
“I like the way they responded,” Vigneault said of the line’s rebound.
Stepan was the rightful recipient of the Broadway Hat, the team’s makeshift MVP trophy, after leading the team to a season-high third straight victory.
The 23-year-old center notched a power-play marker in the second period and scored another pair of goals in the third to shut the door on a struggling Canes squad that has now dropped five straight. Speedy winger Carl Hagelin also collected two goals in his third game back from a shoulder injury that sidelined him for the first 10 games of the season.
“I think it was just a matter of time,” Kreider said of Stepan's performance. “He was getting so many chances, and he was doing things the right way and playing great hockey, so it was just a matter of time before he started getting the bounces.”
Stepan didn’t storm out of the gate this season, perhaps a result of the protracted contract negotiations that prevented him from playing in the preseason, but his line had been showing signs of life recently.
Kreider’s speed combined with Zuccarello’s skill seemed to mesh well with the young pivot’s play-making ability, as the trio combined for nine points Saturday night. Stepan’s second goal, which came 9 minutes, 9 seconds into the third period, was a fine display of the line’s chemistry. With a play forced by strong forechecking pressure from Kreider, Zuccarello made a pretty no-look feed from behind the goal line to connect with Stepan and build a comfy 4-1 lead.
“My two linemates have created some pretty good looks for me, and I wasn’t able to find the back of the net [previously],” Stepan said. “Tonight, they continued to do it and I was fortunate enough to find the net a couple times.”
The Rangers were fortunate to have goaltender Henrik Lundqvist at peak performance as well. The 31-year-old former Vezina Trophy winner bailed the team out during some cringe-worthy moments in New York's own end, both to start the game and as the Canes tried to mount a comeback late in the third.
According to Vigneault, Lundqvist was the team’s best performer.
“He was, in my mind, the best player on the ice tonight,” Vigneault said. “He permitted us to find our legs and find a little bit of a rhythm. We had a couple of breakdowns, but he did what a goaltender is supposed to do and he made some real big saves tonight.”
Lundqvist stopped 27 of 28 shots Saturday night, two nights after a 29-save shutout performance against the Sabres. He now boasts a 1.42 goals-against average and .943 save percentage in his past five appearances.
Since returning from an abysmal nine-game road trip that left them in a 3-6-0 hole to start the season, the Rangers have climbed within a game of .500 as they improved to 6-7-0 Saturday night.
The difference between this team during its atrocious West Coast trip and now, according to Lundqvist, is stark.
“I think ever since we got back to the East Coast, we’ve settled down,” Lundqvist said. “Mentally and physically we started to ... I think we regrouped a little bit.”