There is a reason many refer to Ryan Callahan as simply "Captain Clutch," and the New York Rangers' on-ice leader proved it by scoring the game-winning goal at 2:42 in overtime to defeat the Detroit Red Wings and garner two tremendously important points for New York Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden.
Defenseman Michael Del Zotto hit Callahan with a pass in the high slot, and the birthday boy ripped a shot past Detroit netminder Ty Conklin for the game-winner -- Callahan's 27th goal of the season on his 27th birthday.
New York had long held a firm grasp on the top spot in the Eastern Conference, but a recent 2-5-0 skid entering Wednesday's action, combined with the current torrid 12-0-1 run by the Pittsburgh Penguins has the Pens breathing down the necks of the Broadway Blue Shirts. NY held just a one-point lead entering the contest, and the game against Detroit also gave Pittsburgh a game in hand, so the points could prove to be paramount in the ultimate outcome of the club's fortunes down the stretch drive.
With the victory, the Rangers now hold a three-point lead on the Penguins and a seven-point margin over the Philadelphia Flyers.
The loss was the sixth straight for Detroit (0-4-2), and eighth in their last nine (1-6-2), although the point gained by getting to the extra period did enable the Wings to get to 93 points, one point in front of both the Nashville Predators and Chicago Blackhawks in the battle for the fourth position in the West.
With a lineup ravaged by injuries -- missing key cogs in Nicklas Lidstrom, Johan Franzen, Jonathan Ericsson, and Darren Helm -- the goaltending position was also hit in the past week. A groin injury suffered by Jimmy Howard and a lower back ailment by Joey MacDonald caused the Red Wings to recall Conklin from the Grand Rapids Griffins of the AHL on an emergency basis.
Both goals in regulation came in the first period, and it was actually Detroit who took the early lead. Henrik Zetterberg took an Ian White pass in the slot and was able to beat Henrik Lundqvist with a dipping shot that went between the goaltender's pads. Zetterberg's 19th goal of the season gave the Red Wings a 1-0 lead 3:36 into the opening period.
But the Rangers would tie the game late in the stanza via one of their weakest spots, the NHL's 29th-ranked power play unit. Brad Richards took the puck behind his own net from Lundqvist and ventured on an end-to-end rush, eventually splitting Detroit defensemen Brad Stuart and Niklas Kronwall and beating Conklin with a wrist shot over the blocker side for his 24th goal of the year.
The Wings were nearly able to pull the contest out late in the third period, as they held the puck in the Rangers' zone for an extended time late in regulation, culminating with a near miss when Doug Janik blasted a slap shot from the left hash mark that rang solidly off the crossbar with just over two minutes remaining.
Lundqvist stopped 26 of 27 shots to win his third consecutive game, improving his record for the season to 34-15-5, while Conklin made 32 saves in the defeat, dropping to 3-5-1 for the year.