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Another Day, Another Way for Rangers to Win

Derek Stepan ends the shootout with a sixth-round goal

By Josh Alper
|  Thursday, Mar 29, 2012  |  Updated 11:33 AM EDT
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Usually, you find that teams winning 10 of their last 11 games are operating at a very high level as they polish off opponent after opponent without breaking much sweat.

That hasn't been the case for the Rangers. They've had a few nights where they have simply overwhelmed the opposition, but they've also had nights where they came back to find a way to victory and they've had nights where they mixed flashes of brilliance with long stretches of poor play.

And then there are games like Tuesday's matchup with the Coyotes. Phoenix is a trapping team defensively, something that causes serious headaches for the Rangers and it was something that gave them fits at Madison Square Garden.

They made mistakes, they didn't press their obvious talent advantage and they blew a golden opportunity in overtime.

Marian Gaborik, in a play that felt like a makeup for the Winter Classic, got a penalty shot in the extra period, but couldn't convert against Mike Smith, who played a tremendous game for the Coyotes.

But Smith's tremendous game wasn't enough. The Rangers ended the night by grabbing two more points after Derek Stepan's goal in the sixth round of the shootout, continuing a trend that has been the hallmark of their season. 

Throughout this season, which now has the Rangers with just nine regulation losses in the first 40 games, the one common thread has been that they come up with a way to win almost every night.

On nights when the team gives up a bad goal, the offense comes through, and on nights when the offense is slow, like Tuesday, the defense and Henrik Lundqvist keep things alive until the offense can break through.

Lundqvist went the extra mile last night, stopping the Coyotes five times in the shootout (with a little help from the posts) to win his seventh straight outing.

He's been good for many years now, but it seems like all of the little flaws in his game -- the glove hand, the habit of allowing a soft goal -- have completely disappeared as he's transformed into a leading MVP candidate halfway through the season.

Lundqvist has now allowed the opposition two goals or fewer in 21 of his 29 starts and he hung tough all the way on Tuesday night to keep that total rising.

It helps that he's playing behind the best defense he's ever had with the Rangers, to be sure, but there's no reason to overanalyze a guy who has simply been good since the first moment of the season while showing no signs of slippage.

Having a goalie like that is a big reason why the Rangers are able to see the rest of their performance fluctuate without their results following suit. It's easy to remain confident about winning and coming back when Lundqvist is behind you every step of the way.

And that confidence only feeds on itself when your team keeps on finding a way to wind up on top. If things keep going this way, the confidence level will be mind-boggling come the playoffs.

Josh Alper is a writer living in New York City. You can follow him on Twitter and he is also a contributor to Pro Football Talk.

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