ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA (TICKER) —It’s no longer a matter of if the New York Rangers can play well. It’s if they want to play well.
Mike Dunham made 27 saves for the Rangers, who have the highest payroll in the NHL but began the night just 11th in the Eastern Conference, seven points out of the eighth and final playoff spot.
But over the past week, they have welcomed back Leetch and Pavel Bure from injuries while acquiring fellow All-Star Alexei Kovalev in a move to revive the team. They were 0-2-0 on a six-game road trip before squeaking past the Wild.
“With some depth now, if we want to, we can play well,” said Messier, whose team won a battle between the highest- and lowest-paid teams in the NHL. “It creates some healthy competition. If you want to play, get out there and play well.”
“They had to win that game,” Wild coach Jacques Lemaire said. “If they don’t beat the lower team, then they wouldn’t talk about making the playoffs. These are the games they have to play well.”
Nursing a bad thumb, Messier assisted on the game’s first goal and made it 3-1 with 12:43 left in the second period, when he skated in alone on Dwayne Roloson and beat him with a backhander.
“It didn’t look like his hand hurt on the backhand when he scored on that goal,” Rangers coach Glen Sather said.
Back from an ankle injury, Leetch scored a power-play goal midway through the second period to snap a 1-1 tie. He had set up Sandy McCarthy’s tally, which made it 1-0 at 6:07 of the first.
Playing with a sore groin, Dunham did the rest for the Rangers. He allowed a power-play goal midway through the second as the Wild crept within 3-2 but stopped Sergei Zholtok’s point-blank shot shortly thereafter to preserve the lead.
Bobby Holik beat Roloson with a slap shot at 16:55 of the third to provide the Rangers with some insurance and send them to Anaheim on a high note.
“It was nice to get that fourth goal and get that two-goal lead,” Holik said. “But whether it’s the first line or the fourth line, every line has to contribute. We have to have balance and more consistency. But it’s just one win and we have to build on this.”
Zholtok and Andrew Brunette scored power-play goals for the Wild, who matched a season high with their third straight loss. They started the night sixth in the Western Conference.
The Wild were playing their first game since Saturday. They don’t play again until Sunday.
“I think we should take advantage of the schedule, but unfortunately, we didn’t come up with a win,” Zholtok said. “I don’t think we performed at our best tonight.”
The Rangers were at their best on a power play in the first period, when Bure whipped a no-look pass from behind the goal line to Roloson’s left and across the low slot to the right goalpost, where a driving Leetch redirected the puck into the net.
It was the only power play of the game for the Rangers, who allowed two goals on Minnesota’s six advantages.
“We should be able to kill all the penalties off and score on every power play,” Sather said.
Messier made it 3-1 when he picked up a loose puck at Minnesota’s blue line, skated in alone, deked Roloson with his forehand and slipped a backhander around him for his 15th goal.
It also was the 1,837th point for Messier, who is 13 behind Gordie Howe for second all-time but is more concerned with his bad thumb.
“I’m pretty sore,” the Rangers’ captain said. “I got out of the game without hurting too much. So that’s good.”
Dunham then made a spectacular glove save on Wes Walz, but Zholtok scored moments later on the power play to get Minnesota within a goal. Zholtok had a chance to tie it with 8:35 left, but Dunham reacted quickly to his point-blank one-timer.
Wild star winger Marian Gaborik nearly tied it with 5:10 left, but his snap shot from the top of the right faceoff circle rang off the left post.
Holik sealed the win with 3:05 to play, when he crossed the blue line and stepped into a slap shot, blasting it by Roloson.