The day began with hopeful talk of positive traction.
It ended with an opportunity seized as the Rangers moved into second place in the Metropolitan Division with a 4-3 overtime win over the Coyotes Monday night at the Garden.
“We found a way,” head coach Alain Vigneault said after Ryan McDonagh scored the game-winner 1:56 into the extra period. “[It] says a lot about the group.”
The Rangers (40-29-4, 84 points) have won four in a row, and passed Philadelphia for the second spot in the Metropolitan Division playoff race. The Flyers, who come calling Wednesday night in a nationally televised game, lost to the Kings, 3-2, in Philadelphia.
Philadelphia trails the Rangers by a point and has two games in hand.
“They’re as hot as any team in the league right now,” Marc Staal said of the Flyers. “They’re going to be a challenge. It’s going to be a good test for us.”
The Rangers lead Washington by five points, and Columbus by six points, for the third playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division. But Washington and Columbus have games in hand on the Rangers, who have nine games left in their regular season.
“I think we’ve created a little bit of separation, but not enough,” Kevin Klein said following the morning skate. “There’s still three or four teams battling for those last two spots. These are the big ones. The next few games here, if we can get a five-, six-, seven-point lead that will really help us down the stretch.”
By their own admission, the Rangers were sluggish in the opening 20 minutes and trailed 2-0 at the first intermission. Oliver Ekman-Larsson opened the scoring with a power-play goal 4:40 into the game, and ex-Ranger Jeff Halpern’s fifth goal of the season at 8:22 pushed the Phoenix lead to 2-0.
“We were slow getting to pucks, slow [with] decision-making,” Dan Girardi said of a first period that saw the Rangers booed off the ice. “They [were] picking off passes and we were throwing them away, so I thought we kind of calmed ourselves down after the first period.”
The Rangers began to fight back in the second period as Brad Richards cut the deficit in half at the 6:10 mark of the second by batting Carl Hagelin’s shot from the blue line past Mike Smith. The goal was Richards’ 17th of the season, and his first since March 2, a stretch of 10 games.
Derick Brassard tied the game with a one-timer over Smith 4:43 later. Brassard’s 17th of the season concluded a sequence in which Martin St. Louis’ forecheck forced a turnover in the offensive zone and the Coyotes could not get reset defensively.
“When we turn pucks over and don’t compete physically it allows the other team to turn on us,” Coyotes head coach Dave Tippett said.
Still, the Rangers went into the second intermission down 3-2 as Chris Kreider inadvertently tipped Kyle Chipchura’s centering feed past Henrik Lundqvist (18 saves) with 3:09 left in the period.
Girardi tied the game at 3-3 with 3:28 left in regulation by tipping McDonagh’s point shot past Thomas Greiss (seven saves), who replaced Mike Smith (25 saves), who left the game with an apparent leg injury earlier in the period.
“[I] just made my way down to the net,” Girardi said of his game-tying goal. “I don’t make it down there too often [so] it’s nice to get one from down there.”
McDonagh’s goal, his 13th of the season, marked the only time the Rangers led.
Prior to the game, Lundqvist was feted by the organization for becoming the franchise’s all-time leader in wins and shutouts. Among the dignitaries in attendance were franchise greats goaltenders Mike Richter and Eddie Giacomin, teammates Girardi, Marc Staal and Brad Richards, Lundqvist’s parents, Peter and Eva and his wife Therese and daughter Charlise.
Lundqvist was presented a collage of his moments with The Garden of Dreams, a custom designed goaltender’s mask and a Les Paul custom-made guitar.
“It was definitely a special [moment]. To see my parents walking out there, my family, my wife [and] my kid, it was a very special moment in my career,” Lundqvist said.
He improved to 29-22-4 this season. The win gave him 305 in his career, tying him with Islanders legend Billy Smith for 24th on the NHL’s all-time wins list.
Follow Rangers beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman.