By Sean Hartnett
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The Rangers desperately needed to earn a confidence-building victory over the division-rival Pittsburgh Penguins. After coughing up a two-goal lead in the span of 24 seconds late in the third period, defenseman Kevin Klein stepped up as the overtime hero.
Klein powered a point shot past Marc-Andre Fleury at 3:45 in overtime to secure a 4-3 overtime victory.
"We wanted to find a way to get a win here to get a little bit of confidence, and I think we did that," captain Ryan McDonagh said. "Ultimately, it's an ugly two points, but those are sometimes the ones that are most important down the stretch."
Klein has now recorded four points over a stretch of four games. His six goals are a career-high. Klein is currently on pace to finish the season with a career-best 32 points. All season long, he's been playing like the Blueshirts' No. 1 defenseman. He's already contributed three game-winning goals.
McDonagh and key blueliners Marc Staal and Dan Girardi have struggled with inconsistency throughout the 2014-15 campaign. High-priced free-agent acquisition Dan Boyle has struggled to make a significant impact and has been hampered by injuries and illness.
Klein has been the one Rangers defenseman who has been dependable in all areas of the ice over the span of 26 games. He's always thrived as a shutdown defenseman and shot blocker. Klein has now added an offensive dimension to his game. He's carrying the puck with confidence and wants teammates to feed him the puck so he can unleash hard drives from the point.
"He's making good reads when he feels there's an offensive opportunity," McDonagh said. "He's really been shooting the puck a lot, maybe more than everybody else in the back end. For us, it's a big plus and he's been sticking to his game, taking what's given."
According to Henrik Lundqvist, Klein undoubtedly has the most effective shot on the team.
"I think he has the best shot on the team, no question," Lundqvist said. "He always gets it through, it's hard."
Lundqvist admitted that Klein's powerful drives have routinely stung him in practice.
"It's not a great thing in practice, but I appreciate it in a game," Lundqvist said. "It hurts if it hits you. If you don't use your pads or your glove, it's going to hurt. He's great."
Following the 4-3 victory, Klein returned to the Rangers' dressing room sporting the Broadway Hat and dry blood all over his neck. Klein said he received about "13 or 14 stitches" to repair his left ear after being on the receiving end of a high stick from Penguins defenseman Zach Sill. Klein returned to the ice after Rangers trainers reattached a piece of his left ear.
"He lost a piece of it," Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault said. "They sewed it back. Say what you want about hockey players, but they're tough SOBs."
Klein wasn't the toughest guy in the room. That honor belongs to 15-year-old Christopher Falzone. After being handed the Broadway Hat by teammates, Klein passed the hat to Falzone. Earlier on Monday, the Rangers signed Falzone to a one-day contract as part of the Garden of Dreams Week.
"He is a young man of great character and desire, (and) we are proud and honored to have him as part of the Rangers' organization," Rangers legend Adam Graves said in a press release.
Falzone joined the Rangers on the bench for pregame warmups and stood in line with the players during the national anthem. After being diagnosed with cancer in his freshman year, Falzone underwent chemotherapy and physical therapy. In July, Falzone was cleared to resume skating and will try out for his high-school hockey team. He is currently a sophomore at Middletown High School South in Middletown, N.J.
Following Monday's victory, the 12-10-4 Rangers pulled even on points with the Washington Capitals for third place in the Metropolitan Division. Both teams have accumulated 28 points through 26 games.
Lately, the Rangers have made a habit of coughing up two-goal leads. On Saturday, the Rangers jumped out to a two-goal first-period lead against the Detroit Red Wings before surrendering three unanswered goals. The Rangers suffered a number of glaring defensive breakdowns and eventually were defeated 3-2 by Detroit.
Monday's victory over the Penguins represents real progress by the Rangers. Although they blew a two-goal lead, the Rangers played a disciplined game by only allowing Pittsburgh one power-play opportunity.
"The way we stuck with it builds a lot of character," said winger Rick Nash. "It's a huge win and we needed it."
There's plenty of work to be done between now and Saturday's game in Vancouver. The Rangers will play their next three games in Western Canada against the Canucks, Oilers and Flames. Between now and their flight to British Columbia, the Rangers will need to iron out the rough areas.
They must find remedies for their tendencies to suffer defensive breakdowns and surrender multiple-goal leads. The Rangers have surrendered a lead in 18 of 25 opportunities this season. Had Lundqvist not risen to the occasion throughout the third period, the Rangers may have lost in blowout fashion. The Penguins outshot the Rangers 13-4 during the third period. Another area in need of significant improvement is the Rangers' punchless power play. The Rangers went 0-for-4 on Monday with the man advantage.
All of this will need to improve during the Rangers' swing through Western Canada.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.
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