It wasn’t until the final horn sounded that the New York Rangers (24-12-4) showed some energy on the ice. After sixty minutes of flat, lifeless play culminating in a frustrating 3-0 loss to the New York Islanders (29-13-1), the Rangers woke up just enough to take part in some post-game fighting. The Islanders’ celebration was delayed as both teams shoved each other around the ice and into the boards; punches were thrown, words were exchanged, and the Rangers left Madison Square Garden with their first shutout loss at home since November 1. Not the night anyone had been hoping for, save for the visitors.
The Rangers saw a handful of good scoring chances toward the end of the first period, but shots by Rick Nash and Derick Brassard both clanged off the post, and the game remained scoreless going into the first intermission. These early opportunities would prove to be the Rangers’ best chances of the night, and they struggled to create anything offensively throughout the rest of the game. The Islanders, meanwhile, capitalized on the Rangers’ offensive ineffectiveness and put in three unanswered goals in the second period–one each by Anders Lee, Nikolay Kulemin, and Frans Nielsen. Nielsen’s goal came on a shorthanded rush in the final minute of the second and spelled the end of the night for Henrik Lundqvist, who allowed 3 goals on 31 shots. Cam Talbot made 12 saves in relief, but the Rangers were unable to dig themselves out of the hole.
After sweeping the three California teams this past weekend, the Rangers had built up another 5-game winning streak and were playing their best hockey of the season. It was difficult to find any sort of substantial weaknesses in their game. Tonight, however, faceoffs proved to be the Rangers’ Achilles heel, particularly through the first period; the Islanders won the 13 of the first 18 faceoffs of the night, and these faceoff wins came at key moments in the game. Though the Rangers had their best scoring chances in the first twenty minutes, it was difficult to get anything started when the Islanders always seemed to have control of the puck. The Islanders’ puck possession time only increased as the game went on, and what had been a 0-0 tie soon became a 1, 2, and 3-goal deficit for the home team.
To make matters worse, Derek Stepan left the game with an upper-body injury after playing just 6:55 through two periods. The Rangers expect to find out more about his injury and his status on Wednesday. Stepan has been putting up strong numbers (6-21-27) since returning from a broken leg earlier in the season. If the injury he sustained in the Islanders game is at all serious, the Rangers could be down one of their top six forwards.
The Rangers will now return to the road again and play back-to-back games against Boston and Columbus on Thursday and Friday. And though every game means an important two points are on the line, these games will be especially important for the Rangers to win; as it stands, the Rangers are tied for a Wild Card spot with the Bruins and are two points out of third place in the Metropolitan Division. The playoff race is tight this season, and every point matters.
For now, it’s time for the Rangers to put this less-than-enjoyable homecoming behind them and focus on finding that midseason spark and success again. 12 wins in 14 games still amounts to very good hockey. But 13 in 15 would just be that much better.