By VIN A. CHERWOO
The Associated Press
NEW YORK — With the New York Rangers playing their best hockey in months as they went into their extended break, veteran goalie Henrik Lundqvist hopes his young teammates don’t focus too far ahead when they return.
The Rangers have won four of five to pull within nine points of the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. After beating Boston last Saturday, they are on their bye week heading into this weekend’s All-Star break and don’t play again until hosting Philadelphia next Tuesday night.
“We can’t look at the big picture, ‘Can we get in, are we still in the race?,’” he said. “We just got to take it week by week and continue to improve.”
New York, expected to miss the playoffs for the second straight year after making seven consecutive appearances that included a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2014, went into the nine-day layoff 6-6-1 while playing 13 games in 24 days. The stretch was capped by the Rangers’ first three-game winning streak since Nov. 19-21.
“Awesome feeling going into the break with a win,” said Mika Zibanejad, who has totaled five goals and four assists in the last five games. “It’s been a hectic schedule here with a lot of hockey, so try to get away from it a little bit. We’ve got a few days before the game to come back … it’s easier to come back with a win before the break than if we had lost.”
In rebuilding mode this season, the Rangers have struggled for consistency. They won nine of 11 to move to 12-8-2 heading into Thanksgiving, but then followed that with just five wins in 21 games (5-11-5) before the recent five-game stretch.
Lundqvist, who has earned each of the victories during the Rangers’ current streak, didn’t mind the timing of the break.
“I’ve been waiting for this week,” the veteran goalie said. “It’s been a grind. It’s been for different reasons up and down and I think it’s good to get a break. And also reflect on why did we have a really good week. I hope we all do that and understand how focused, and [how we] paid attention to all the details in our game. … That’s what wins you games in this league and its very important that we understand that.”
First-year coach David Quinn was pleased with how his players maintained their focus with the long time off approaching.
“I’m really proud of the way we’ve played, understanding you see a nine-day break you could get distracted,” he said. “Your mind could be in different places but we did a heck of a job … of really being dialed in and wanting to finish on a high note. Hopefully they keep in mind what we did the last three games to put us in this position.”
Zibanejad, who leads the team with 44 points, isn’t the only one who has played well lately, as he and linemates Mats Zuccarello (three goals, five assists) and Chris Kreider (two goals, three assists) have combined for 10 goals and 12 assists the last five games.
Quinn wasn’t concerned with the layoff breaking his team’s rhythm, noting that every team has an extended break around the All-Star Game in San Jose this Saturday with a bye week either heading into the weekend or immediately following.
There have been some bright spots during the first 48 games. Kreider has upped his total to a team-high 22 goals, and Zibanejad is tops with 27 assists. Several youngsters have also come through as Jimmy Vesey (16 goals, 11 assists) is one away from his career high in goals and points, and two in assists.
Defenseman Neal Pionk has 20 points, 19-year-old forward Filip Chytil has nine goals and nine assists in his first full season, and 20-year-old Brett Howden has 15 points.
Lundqvist, who has moved past Terry Sawchuk for sixth place on the NHL career wins list with 446, eight behind Curtis Joseph for fifth place, won’t be off the entire time like his teammates, as he will be making his fourth All-Star appearance.
“You go there to enjoy it, meet all the guys,” he said. “You just try to have a blast. I’m going to bring my family and have a good time.”