Are two consecutive losses in regulation -- which hadn't happened since late January -- merely an unfortunate exhale for the Rangers after clinching a playoff spot? Or is it a collective lull?
"It's hard to say," Derek Stepan said after the Washington Capitals scored four straight goals Sunday to power past the Rangers, 5-2, at the Garden. "I certainly hope not; there's still a lot of work to be done."
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No one, from coach Alain Vigneault to Cam Talbot to Ryan McDonagh to Rick Nash, sensed any type of playoff-clinching hangover.
But the Rangers were mistake-prone in the first period in Boston on Saturday in a 4-2 loss and were outplayed in the third period Sunday, when the Capitals scored three times to break open a 2-2 game. They agreed that they need to hit the reset button with only seven games left in the regular season.
"There's still a lot to play for," Vigneault said. "We're playing for home-ice advantage; we haven't secured that. You also want to go into the playoffs playing the right way. There was a lot of hockey on our plate this week. I'm not using that as an excuse, but it's the reality of the situation."
Stepan thought the Rangers (101 points) played well enough through 40 minutes, after which the score was tied at 2-2. Kevin Hayes, with a terrific deke and one-handed goal, and Derick Brassard, off a give-and- go with Mats Zuccarello, scored in a 1:01 span late in the first period to erase a 1-0 lead provided by the first of Alex Ovechkin's two goals.
Ovechkin's second, and league-leading 49th, came at 11:17 of the second with three seconds left on Brassard's slashing penalty to tie it at 2.
The Capitals were the hungrier team in the third period. Jason Chimera -- who hadn't scored in 20 games -- tallied twice in a span of 2:59 in the first 7:40 and Marcus Johansson scored into an empty net with 2:23 left.
"They had the will to win tonight and we didn't," said Talbot, who made 26 saves. "They had the killer instinct."
Nash thought 25 shots on Braden Holtby weren't enough, and although that is true, misplays on the back end -- from Keith Yandle to newcomer Chris Summers, making his Rangers debut for the injured Matt Hunwick -- were costly.
"A lot of the mistakes we made from the back end, there were some obvious better choices," Vigneault said.
With Henrik Lundqvist in goal in Boston, some of the same issues surfaced.
"The preparation hasn't transpired on the ice the way we want to," McDonagh said. "A little more communication [in the defensive zone] always helps. With a big, physical team coming at you hard, you've got to try and anticipate your next play, want to make sure you're 100 percent with passes and your outlet plays. Maybe being a little more simple."
After having just one power play in the previous three games, the Rangers had five opportunities and came up short. "Not nearly good enough," Vigneault said.
The Rangers, whose previous consecutive regulation losses came Jan. 27 and 29 to the Islanders and Canadiens, leave Monday for a tough two-game trip to Winnipeg and Minnesota.
"This is a chance for us to regroup," said McDonagh, who dismissed any suggestion that the Rangers are looking ahead to possible first-round matchups. "Nobody's taken that big picture yet. We want to focus on playing well every game, not scenarios down the road."