Many players have been credited with the Rangers’ rise to the top of the NHL this year, but the player that is as responsible as any is goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.
Tuesday night at the Garden, in a matchup against doppelganger Nashville, Lundqvist was the best player on the ice in the Rangers’ 3-0 win. He made 27 saves in to earn his 20th win of the season. It was also his fourth shutout of the year and 39th of his career.
“Hank made some really good saves. When we had breakdowns, Hank played very well,” coach John Tortorella said
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Dan Girardi, John Mitchell and Ryan Callahan scored for the Rangers. They have won seven of their last 10 games.
Anders Lindback stopped 26 of 28 shots for Nashville, who lost for only the second time in its last 10 games.
Girardi’s fourth goal of the year opened the scoring 6:15 into the match. The All-Star defenseman threw a shot that pinballed off of Predators defenseman Jack Hillen and into the net.
Girardi’s goal occurred due to strong play the shift prior by the Ruslan Fedotenko-Brian Boyle-Brandon Prust triumvirate. The line, most notably Boyle, forechecked heavily and was able to keep Nashville pinned in its defensive zone.
“It’s been a little bit of time,” Girardi said of his game-winner. “When we’re successful we want to be hard on [opponents].”
The Rangers milked the slim lead for 24:03, spanning the first two periods, although they had opportunities to increase their advantage. Carl Hagelin was unable to bury two first-period chances against a shaky Lindback. Marian Gaborik, the league’s third-leading goal scorer, passed up on a shot, instead passing to Mitchell during a 2-on-1 in the second that Lindback stopped. It was one of the few times Nashville’s backup goaltender did not fight the puck.
Mitchell increased the lead to 2-0 at 10:42 of the second period with his fourth score of the season.
“Just got a puck on the net quickly,” Mitchell said of his goal.
Ryan Callahan added an empty netter with 50.3 seconds remaining for the final score.
Entering last night’s match — only the 16th all-time between the two franchises — the Predators were only four points behind the Rangers. However, Nashville’s 56 points were only sixth most in the West and had them in fourth place in the ultra-competitive Central Division.
Facing a mirror image team, the Rangers clogged the neutral and defensive zones. A majority of the 27 shots that Nashville was credited with were from the periphery. The few opportunities that could be termed dangerous were stopped by Lundqvist.
The best chance Nashville had came in the first. Sergei Kostitsyn forced a defensive zone turnover a moment before he dropped a pass to Martin Erat. Erat, who later was penalized for goaltender interference, fired a shot that rolled to the left of Lundqvist. The Rangers’ netminder stretched his left pad and kept the puck out of the net.
“We played a really good game. I didn’t have to do a lot,” Lundqvist said. “We know how we have to play. If you want to stay in top position, you have to correct things right away.”
The only Predator who was even marginally impressive was restricted free agent defenseman Shea Weber. Benefitting his Norris Trophy-caliber status, Weber moved the puck smartly and was physically engaged in his 23:51 of ice time. Possessor of one of the NHL’s hardest shots, perhaps Weber’s lone miscue was having his stick explode in half as he attempted a first-period slapper from the point.
Weber, fellow defenseman Ryan Suter (who was a healthy scratch last night) and goaltender Pekka Rinne entered this season in the final year of deals. Rinne agreed to a seven-year, $49 million extension in November.
Speculations persists that Predators general manager David Poile will be unable to lock up Suter and Weber as Nashville is one of the league’s weaker franchises financially. Both would be attractive to any of the league’s remaining 29 franchises but Weber could fetch a mint.
He leads Nashville in points (32), assists (23), power play goals (5), shots (127) and plus-minus (+12).
Follow Rangers beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman.