Carolina Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward stops a shot on the goal by New York Rangers\' Mats Zuccarello during the second period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, March 13, 2012, in New York. The Hurricanes lost the game 4-2. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
NEW YORK, N.Y. - Brad Richards, the New York Rangers $60 million free agent, is starting to live up to expectations.
Richards scored twice and Martin Biron, a last-minute replacement for the ill Henrik Lundqvist, made 27 saves as the Rangers beat the Hurricanes 4-2 on Tuesday night to sweep the four-game season series against Carolina.
New York's top line had a stellar night. Marian Gaborik also scored, and Carl Hagelin had a goal and assists on both of Richards' goals as the trio combined for four goals and nine points.
Since that combination was put together three games ago, Richards has five goals following a 14-game stretch in which he scored only once.
"I'm feeling a lot better," Richards said. "It's always nice when things go in. That helps how you feel and how you come to the rink. It's nice to help the team, and get rewarded for some of the plays we are making."
Richards was supposed to be the centre who would bring out the best in Gaborik. They didn't click at the start of the season, but that changed when they were reunited again for the first time since then. The rookie Hagelin joined the trio, and the line has been potent.
"It's a lot of fun for me to be able to play with those two guys," Hagelin said. "Trading all the chances we had is a lot of fun. That's the feeling you want to have when you get on the ice, that if you do you're job defensively, you'll get your chances offensively."
The Rangers took advantage of a soft part in the schedule to extend their winning streak to two after they dropped three in a row. The wins over the New York Islanders and the Hurricanes, two teams unlikely to make the playoffs, have been welcomed with tough opponents on the horizon, starting with the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday.
The Rangers stretched their lead in the Atlantic Division, and Eastern Conference, to six points over Pittsburgh, which will face New York on Thursday. The Penguins, winners of nine in a row, expect to have captain Sidney Crosby back in the lineup then after he missed more than three months with concussion symptoms.
Tim Brent and Drayson Bowman scored for the Hurricanes, 3-13-3 against the Atlantic Division this season.
Biron got the start because Lundqvist was sidelined with the flu. Biron was steady and improved to 12-4-2 despite giving up two quick goals in the second period.
"We gave them a chance to use their speed," Biron said. "They came at us with odd-man rushes. We were able to tighten it up a little bit after that."
Gaborik capitalized on a fortuitous bounce to score his team-leading 34th goal of the season at 3:02 of the first. Dan Girardi hammered a shot from the point that missed the net and hit the end boards. The puck bounced right to Gaborik, alone to the left side of the Carolina net, for an easy tap-in past Cam Ward.
That was the only tally of the first period in which the Rangers had a 10-9 edge in shots.
Carolina spent much of the first 10 minutes of the second period in the New York zone but couldn't beat Biron.
On their first sustained pressure of the period, the Rangers went up 2-0 as Richards flipped a shot past Ward's glove at 10:12.
Richards struck again at 13:11, patiently dragging the puck across the slot until Ward went down, providing a shooting angle. The Rangers seemed solidly in command, until Carolina stormed back as Brent and Bowman scored 32 seconds apart.
Brent got the puck out of a maze of players to score a power-play goal at 14:44. Bowman followed with a drive from the right circle that put the Hurricanes back in the game.
Carolina came close to pulling even in the opening seconds of the third period as Eric Staal stripped Gaborik of the puck for a short-handed breakaway, but his shot hit a post behind Biron.
"We weren't able to get that tying goal," Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller said. "Staal hits the post when it would have made it 3-3. The guys fought back. We just came up a little bit short. We threw everything at them and went right at it to the end, but Biron made the key saves at the right time."
Hagelin made it 4-2 at 13:00.
NOTES: The Hurricanes went 2-2-1 on a five-game trip. They will host St. Louis on Thursday. ... The Rangers recalled Chad Johnson from Connecticut of the AHL to back up Biron. ... New York was again without defencemen Michael Del Zotto (hip) and Jeff Woywitka, captain Ryan Callahan (bruised foot) and LW John Scott. The Hurricanes were missing D Jaroslav Spacek (lower body injury), C Jiri Tlusty (illness) and RW Anthony Stewart. ... D Bobby Sanguinetti, a Rangers' first-round pick in 2006, made his season debut after being recalled from the minors by the Hurricanes on Monday.