NEW YORK (TICKER) —Alexei Kovalev’s new team remained perfect while his old team continued to struggle.
Kovalev scored a power-play goal early in the third period and Mike Dunham made 26 saves as the New York Rangers blanked the Pittsburgh Penguins, 1-0, giving them consecutive wins for the first time in three weeks.
Since re-acquiring Kovalev from Pittsburgh on Monday as part of an eight-player trade, the Rangers are 2-0 following a seven-game winless streak. The All-Star right wing got an empty-netter in Wednesday’s 3-1 triumph at Florida and produced the game-winner in his first appearance against his former team.
New York failed to convert on a two-man advantage that carried over to the third period but were still on the power play when defenseman Tom Poti flipped a shot from the blue line. Positioned just above the crease with his back to the net, Kovalev made a backhanded deflection between his legs for his 29th goal.
“They put me at forward and I was trying to do what I thought would be best. And I got the chance and tipped it,” Kovalev said. “You can’t have a better day than today. This team needs wins and I try to do the best I can.”
“That surprised me, it went in,” Penguins goaltender Johan Hedberg said. “I thought I had him covered, but guys like that find holes.”
Dunham made it stand up, recording his third shutout of the season. He helped New York kill five penalties against the NHL’s No. 2 power play.
“Obviously, we took one of their top guys from their power-play unit and put him on our team,” Dunham said, referring to Kovalev. “But we still have to be aware of Mario (Lemieux), and I think we did a good job of limiting his chances.”
The Rangers also got a boost from the return of two-time Norris Trophy winner Brian Leetch, who missed 31 contests with a badly bruised ankle but got the secondary assist on the game’s lone goal.
“How many guys can miss as much time as he’s missed with a serious injury like he had?” New York coach Glen Sather asked. “Three days ago, I didn’t think he could play and then yesterday, he told the doctors that he has progressed and can play. Then he jumped in. … He is phenomenal. There aren’t many athletes like that.”
“I’ve had a sore ankle for a long time. That wasn’t an issue once I got out there,” said Leetch, who had not played since December 3. “I don’t expect to have any more pain or discomfort than I’ve had other (days).”
“It hurts that Marty Straka’s not here and Hrdina, two of our top goal-scorers,” Lemieux said. “So it seems like the last couple of years, guys go out of the lineup at the wrong time and it’s tough to survive.”
The Rangers nearly scored three minutes into the game. Beaten to the puck by Radek Dvorak, Hedberg was caught behind the net. But he caught a break when the puck skipped over the sticks of Ronald Petrovicky and Leetch.
Pittsburgh took the game’s first four penalties, but the next three went to New York. The Penguins failed to convert during a 63-second two-man advantage as Lemieux put a shot from the left faceoff circle off the side of the net, then was stopped by Dunham moments later.
“I thought the last two games, we had some pretty good chances. We just can’t put it in, especially on special teams,” said Lemieux, who was held without a point for the 12th time this season. “The power play, we had a couple of good chances, but it seems like everybody is a bit uptight and wanted to do too much. Guys got to relax and just go out and play.”
Hedberg led to the game’s only goal when he backed into the net and knocked it off its moorings, drawing a delay-of-game penalty with 6.5 seconds to go in the second period.
“Every game, I need to be not only good, I need to be great” he said. “It just isn’t happening for us.”