If this week was a referendum on the state of the 2013-14 Rangers, then consider them a work in progress.
That is a better place than where the Rangers were a month ago.
Following the Rangers’ 5-1 rout of the Eastern Conference-leading Penguins Wednesday night at the Garden, the Blueshirts find themselves one game under .500 (7-8). They have an opportunity Thursday night to reach the break-even point as they travel to Columbus for a match against the Blue Jackets.
“I think everything is falling into place a little more,” Anton Stralman said.
The team that heads to Columbus is vastly different than the one that spent much of October attempting to determine its identity.
“We know more as a team. We found our identity a little bit. Found a new system and all that,” Stralman said. “It takes some time to do that and I think right now we’re rolling. We’re playing some good hockey.”
The Rangers led 2-0 at the first intermission despite being outshot 12-9 on the strength of goals by Ryan McDonagh and Derek Stepan in a 65-second span late in the period. Following strong forechecking by Brian Boyle and Benoit Pouliot behind the Penguins net, Boyle fed McDonagh for the game-opening goal at 18:08. One minute and five seconds later, the lead was 2-0 after Derek Stepan outraced Matt Niskanen to Mats Zuccarello’s feed and snapped a quick shot past a shaky Marc-Andre Fleury (20 saves).
The line of Stepan, Zuccarello and Chris Kreider finished with three points and a collective plus-3 rating. Zuccarello, in particular, was effective around the net and spent the match irritating the Penguins — highlighted by a second-period wrestling match with Chris Kunitz following a Henrik Lundqvist save.
“I think that was part of our success tonigh. We played a tight game, [and] frustrated them a little bit,” Stralman said. “We had a lot of those guys tonight that did the hard work.”
The Rangers’ lead grew to 3-0 when Boyle scored his first of the season as part of a counterattack with Brad Richards. Stralman forced a turnover in the defensive zone to spring Richards and Boyle. Richards carried the puck into the offensive zone before feeding Boyle for a one-timer that beat Fleury.
“It felt good,” Boyle said of his goal. “It felt great. I was happy it hit the net.”
Kris Letang cut the Rangers’ lead to 3-1 when he scored a power-play goal 1:24 later. Letang’s marker was the only man-advantage goal the Rangers allowed on the five power plays against them. The Rangers have killed 31-of-36 power plays in their last 10 games.
“I thought our guys did a real strong job,” head coach Alain Vigneault said. “Our guys settled down a little bit [and] did what they had to do in taking lanes and blocking shots.”
The Rangers regained the three-goal advantage exactly 68 seconds later. Callahan redirected Brad Richards’ redirection of Carl Hagelin’s shot from above the right faceoff circle.
“He’s a good player,” Vigneault said of Callahan. “He makes our team really, really a good team when he is on top of his game.”
Derick Brassard’s tap in 9:57 into the third ended the scoring.
As vital as the goals were, no play was as important as Ryan Callahan sweeping Niskanen’s point drive off the goal line midway through a scoreless first. Niskanen’s shot rolled under and past Lundqvist (26 saves), heading into the goal when Callahan cleared the puck.
“It’s always tough to start a goal down and we really wanted to not work uphill, like we did against Anaheim [Monday night],” Stralman said. “Cally saved one there at the goal line.”
Among those in attendance last night were the Oilers front office triumvirate of President of Hockey Operations Kevin Lowe, general manager Craig MacTavish and consultant Mark Messier. The trio was at the Garden for Monday’s 2-1 loss to Anaheim, creating speculation the Oilers might be scouting Rangers players for a trade.
Follow Rangers beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman.