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Unlikely hero lifts Rangers past Canes

Mats Zuccarello scores first NHL goal to beat Canes in overtime.

Rangers 2, Hurricanes 1 (OT)

John Tortorella engaged in a bit of role reversal last night.

“Did it go right to the roof?” the coach asked following the Rangers’ 2-1 overtime win over Carolina at the Garden. “Did it deflect?”

The ‘it’ Tortorella referred to was Mats Zuccarello’s first NHL goal. Zuccarello controlled a loose puck behind the Carolina net, skated out to the goal line and whipped a shot from ten feet that Cam Ward had no chance to stop.

That the goal happened to be the game-winner with 1:51 remaining overtime, well, that was even better. But what the coach focused on was the immediate aftermath. What he saw was pleasing.

“Good for him,” Tortorella said with a smile. “You know what I liked? I like looking at these things on tape, it wasn’t an individual celebration. He got excited and then looked right to the bench. He’s a likable kid. He’s a really likable kid. I don’t know where it all settles here as we get through, but good for him. It must be exciting for him.”

The Rangers improved to 23-15-3 on the season. Their 49 points have them seventh in the East. They trail sixth seed Atlanta by one and fifth-seeded Washington by two. With 41 games remaining in the season, there is plenty of time to make an upward climb in the standings. But, as Tortorella pointed out in his pre-game press conference, the opportunity to be passed by teams currently out-of-the-top-eight exists, as well.

Tortorella name-dropped Buffalo (37 points) and the Hurricanes (42 points) as teams that were “coming” and could grab a top-eight spot.

The Rangers and Hurricanes then went out and were stymied for 51:19 as Henrik Lundqvist and Cam Ward engaged in a goaltender’s duel. Lundqvist made 31 saves while Ward turned away 33 Rangers shots.

Matt Gilroy snapped a laser from the high slot high to Ward’s glove side 8:41 into the third period for the game’s first goal. Gilroy had been scratched in 16 of the Rangers’ 41 games this season. However Gilroy’s improved play coupled with Michael Del Zotto’s second-year struggles has Gilroy firmly entrenched as one-sixth of the defense corps while Del Zotto was shipped to AHL Connecticut Monday in an effort to work on his game.

“It’s nice that they put you out there at the end of the game, that they don’t worry about you and keep playing you,” Gilroy said. He played 14:20 and was paired with Mike Sauer. “They want you to make plays.”

Eric Staal’s one-timer with 6:14 remaining tied the game at 1-1. Lundqvist could not control a rebound and Staal snapped the puck stickside before colliding with the Rangers goaltender. Staal’s goal was Lundqvist’s lone mistake in his brilliant effort.

“It was more frustrating to (not make the save). He scored then he bumped into me. It’s frustrating. It was tough,” analyzed Lundqvist about Carolina’s lone goal. “If it was a little higher shot, it’s easy to freeze the puck. But it bounced on my pad and he was right there to put it in. I have to control the rebound better.”

The game remained tied until Zuccarello’s first NHL goal. Zuccarello was signed to a two-year, $3.5 million deal in May in order to bolster the offense. Zuccarello led the Swedish Elite League with 23 goals for MoDo in 2009-10.

“I was trying to get it corner of the net, near corner. Lucky shot,” Zuccarello said. “It’s unbelievable. It’s a great feeling.”

The Norwegian was sent to Connecticut following training camp. He scored 25 points (13 goals, 12 assists) in 33 games for the Whale before being called up on December 22. In six games, Zuccarello has a goal and two assists. Zuccarello earned the primary assist on Gilroy’s goal.

You can follow us on Twitter @DenisGorman and @MetroNewYork.

What went right ...

Crucial win
— John Tortorella dismissed the importance of last night’s game against Carolina, which could have lasting playoff implications. “I think all games are important,” Tortorella said. “You start overemphasizing game 41, I think you get lost a little bit.” Forget the coach­speak. There’s no denying a win over a team sure to be battling the Rangers for a playoff spot is not only rewarding but plenty significant, particularly down the stretch in April.

2 Just enough — The Blueshirts pelted Cam Ward with 15 shots in the second period but went to the third in a scoreless tie. Matt Gilroy then gave them a 1-0 lead 8:41 in before Mats Zuccarello scored his first NHL goal 3:09 into overtime for the win.

3 King me — Henrik?Lundqvist stopped 31 shots on the night.

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