New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, right, of Sweden, makes a save as Rangers\' Ryan McDonagh (27) checks Boston Bruins\' Patrice Bergeron during the first period of an NHL hockey game Sunday, March 4, 2012, at Madison Square Garden in New York. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)
NEW YORK, N.Y. - Sometimes the so-so performances stand out more than the great ones.
The surging New York Rangers have been running away with the Eastern Conference and now they are picking up points even when they aren't playing up to the high standard they have set.
"We're playing our third game in two-and-a-half days, and they're not all going to be pretty," Rangers coach John Tortorella said after the Rangers outlasted the Boston Bruins 4-3 on Sunday.
Derek Stepan and Marian Gaborik both scored tiebreaking goals in the third period, and the Rangers held on after losing in overtime at Tampa Bay on Friday. New York squandered two-goal leads in both games, but escaped with three of four points.
The Rangers (42-15-7) topped Boston for the fifth straight time, dating to last season, and opened a 12-point lead over the defending Stanley Cup champions. New York's closest pursuer is Atlantic Division-rival Pittsburgh, which is 10 points behind.
Henrik Lundqvist made 30 saves and bounced back from the Lightning loss. Anton Stralman and Carl Hagelin also scored for the Rangers, who have won nine of 13 (9-2-2). New York has 91 points—the most in the NHL—and has gotten there in fewer games than any team in close contention for the Presidents' Trophy.
"Maybe our last two games we weren't perfect, but we still managed to get points," Lundqvist said. That's a strength. That's what it comes down to—just find ways to win games, or at least get points. We didn't play our best ... but we stayed in the game."
Gaborik gave the Rangers a 3-2 lead 3:14 into the third with his 32nd goal, but David Krejci tied it for Boston at 11:42. The Bruins barely had time to celebrate before Stepan ripped a drive from the left circle that sailed past screened goalie Tim Thomas and under the crossbar 39 seconds later.
"Their guy, maybe (Ruslan) Fedotenko, crossed at the exact perfect time," Thomas said. "He was going to release it, then the cross. I felt it hit my shoulder. I might have picked it up when it was three feet from my shoulder."
Gaborik put the Rangers in front after Boston defenceman Dennis Seidenberg tried to get the puck out of danger behind the net. Seidenberg banked the puck off the end boards, but it caromed right to Gaborik, who made a quick shift from forward to backhand and scored.
The Rangers were held to 17 shots, but got the best of Thomas, who lost for the second straight day. Thomas came on in relief Saturday against the New York Islanders after starter Tuukka Rask was injured. Boston was beaten for the seventh time in 11 games (4-6-1).
Benoit Pouliot and Jordan Caron had the other goals for Boston.
"We played a pretty good game," Thomas said. "Right now, what can go wrong, will. It's one of those modes."
New York lost its second straight 2-0 lead largely because of sloppy play by its defencemen. Giveaways by Stralman and Dan Girardi lead directly to Boston's first two goals.
With about 8 minutes gone in the first period, Stralman—who a few minutes earlier doubled the Rangers' lead—tried to clear the puck out of his zone but instead had it picked off. Caron got the puck to Pouliot, who fired in a drive at 7:57.
Girardi got caught trying to move the puck up ice while the Bruins were in the midst of a line change. His attempt to get the puck out of his end was intercepted by Caron, who then ripped a drive by Lundqvist to tie it 1:40 into the second.
"That's the league we play in. You make a bad play, it's going to go into the back of your net," Girardi said.
Until then it was all Rangers, at least on the scoreboard.
Stralman gave them a 1-0 lead when he kept the puck in at the left point, curled to the top of the circle and ripped a shot that found its way inside the left post at 5:05.
Just 1:10 later, the Rangers took advantage of the shaky Thomas again. Girardi fired the puck from his own end, and a deflection by Brad Richards negated a potential icing call.
It didn't matter as the speedy Hagelin beat the Bruins up ice, and carried the puck behind the net. He flung the puck in front, and as teammate Brandon Dubinsky crashed the crease, the puck hit Boston defenceman Greg Zanon and bounced past Thomas. The goal was originally credited to Dubinsky.
Bruins coach Claude Julien then used his timeout, and his team responded. Pouliot cut the deficit in half just 1:39 later, and Boston gradually took over.
"Other than the result, we have a lot to be happy about," Bruins forward Milan Lucic said. "We played a real good game after we called that timeout. We had everyone going. It was the best effort that we've had in a long time. We need to keep our heads high and remember the things here that gave the scoring chances and the momentum."
The Bruins held New York to eight shots in the first period and 11 through 40 minutes. Boston fired 24 pucks at Lundqvist in the first two periods and held a big edge in possession time.
"They had the puck for most of the second period," Stepan said. "In the third we did a great job of defending, and we held onto pucks a little more."
NOTES: The final 2:53 of the first period was tacked onto the start of the second after a shot by Boston's Brian Rolston broke a pane of glass behind the New York net. ... Rangers captain Ryan Callahan missed his third straight game because of a bruised foot. ... The Rangers have won nine of 11 against Boston. ... Bruins LW Lane MacDermid, in his NHL debut, fought Mike Rupp 2:30 into the game. There were three fights in the first period.