LAS VEGAS (AP) The first time they met, the New York Rangers were introduced to an expansion Vegas Golden Knights team that was riddled with goaltender injuries and just 10 games into the season.
That was on Oct. 31, when New York erased rallied from two goals down to beat fourth-string goalie Max Lagace in a 6-4 victory. On Sunday night, the Rangers met a matured Golden Knights team that was looking to get even.
William Karlsson scored the tiebreaking goal midway through the third period to lift Vegas to a 2-1 victory over New York in front of a season-high 18,234 in attendance.
”At the beginning (of the season) we were having some collapses in the third, and that’s not happening anymore,” Karlsson said. ”I think we’re a better team than we were at the start. I think we’re more complete. We have a solid four lines and our D pairs are great. Obviously, the goaltending has been awesome, too. We’re just a more complete team now.”
James Neal also scored his 18th goal of the season, while Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 28 shots to improve to 9-2-1.
Now at the halfway point of their inaugural campaign, the Golden Knights own the top home record in the league, moving to 18-2-1 in the first 21 contests at T-Mobile Arena. Vegas is 9-0-1 in its last 10 at home, including seven straight wins.
”We’re beating good hockey teams and we’re playing good hockey,” Vegas coach Gerard Gallant said. ”Tonight, we played a real good Ranger team. … We stayed patient, we found a way to score late in the hockey game and win a big game.”
Behind excellent puck movement on the game-winner, defenseman Deryk Engelland found Jonathan Marchessault with a blueline-to-blueline pass. Marchessault then pushed the puck forward to Reilly Smith, who found Karlsson at the right dot for a one-timer for his team-high 22nd of the season.
”Obviously I have Marchessault and Smith on my wings, so with them it’s been really great,” Karlsson said. ”I have to thank them a lot. They’ve been great, and it’s so easy to play with them.”
Fleury turned in another spectacular performance, allowing two or fewer goals for the fifth consecutive time, while coming up with several big saves down the stretch.
”Our defensive players have been great, blocking shots and helping me out with rebounds and letting me see the puck. It’s a good team effort,” Fleury said. ”Those are the kinds of games we’re going to see later on in the season toward the end. We’re finding ways to win those games. It’s important, it’s good for the confidence and it’s good to know we can do that.”
Mika Zibanejad scored for the Rangers and Ondrej Pavelec, making his 10th appearance of the season, finished with 32 saves.
”It’s tough. We lost a game we wanted to win before the break, but we battled hard,” Pavelec said. ”I think we played a good third period and had some chances. But you can’t be happy because we lost … and that’s all that matters.”
Since the start of last season, New York is 14-7-0 in the second game of a back-to-back set. The Rangers, who lead the NHL in road wins since the start of last season with 34, were coming off a shootout victory at Arizona on Saturday night, when Henrik Lundqvist stopped 38 of 39 shots he faced in regulation and overtime and all three attempts in the shootout.
New York got on the board first when Zibanejad got his 13th of the season with a wrist shot that beat Fleury on the glove side.
Less than four minutes later, Neal capitalized on a turnover in the attacking zone, to the right of Pavelec, beating him top shelf with a wrist shot that tied the score.
Both teams now enter their bye weeks, and despite the loss, the Rangers enter the break 7-4-3 in their last 14 games.
For the Western Conference leaders, Gallant said it’s time off his players have been talking about.
”We’re ready for a week off, the guys are looking forward to it,” Gallant said. ”We push them all the time. They competed, they battled hard and we’re at the halfway mark tonight, and the team’s played really well. We gotta have a good break and get away from hockey for a while, come back on Friday and get back to practice and get ready for Saturday’s game.”
NOTES: Rangers C Mats Zuccarello is just one assist away from 200 in his NHL career. … Engelland remains one point away from 100. … Karlsson leads Vegas with 22 goals, Marchessault is tops with 40 points and tied with David Perron with a team-high 24 assists.
Rangers: Host the New York Islanders on Saturday.
Golden Knights: Host Edmonton on Saturday night.