When a team is stumbling, post-game comments usually include a blend of blame and bravado. That was the case Saturday night, after the Rangers let slide an opportunity to clinch a playoff berth again.
For the second straight game, all the backsliding Rangers needed was a win against a team that is out of playoff contention and they would be in the postseason for the sixth consecutive season.
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It didn’t happen.
For all the talk about getting off to a fast start, the Rangers came out with a second consecutive poor first period, falling behind on Ryan O’ Reilly’s pair of goals in the first period and the defensively rocky Blueshirts dropped a 4-3 decision to the Sabres, whom they had beaten nine straight times.
“I have to take a lot of blame for the first three goals,” said Ryan McDonagh. “I wasn’t executing the way I need to . . . that’s two games in a row now we’ve dug ourselves a hole. ”
Was there any difference in this opening period?
“I thought in the Carolina game [also a 4-3 loss] it was due to energy, there wasn’t a whole lot of life on the bench,” said Derek Stepan. “Tonight, I thought we had jump, we just didn’t execute. We played our game for the majority of the game, we just need to get our starts to the way they were for the majority of the year.’’
With four games remaining, and the next one in Columbus on Monday, the Rangers, stalled at 95 points, are showing why some wonder whether this team has the consistency, desperation and will to make any kind of postseason run. The telling sound of the evening? The Rangers were booed at Madison Square Garden after 20 minutes and again just 46 seconds into the third period before Henrik Lundqvist was pulled when he provided an easy rebound for a diving Zemgus Girgensons for the third Sabres goal on nine shots.
“They didn’t have to work that hard to get some goals,” said Lundqvist, who said a miscommunication with Kevin Klein caused O’Reilly’s first goal off a loose puck. “He thought I was going to freeze it. I should have played it safe.
“When we have breakdowns, I need to come up with that extra save and in the first period and the first minute of the second, I did not.”
Antti Raanta replaced Lundqvist and Kevin Hayes then wristed a behind-the-net pass from Eric Staal through Chad Johnson (33 saves) at 2:58 to trim the lead to 3-1. Keith Yandle later coughed up the puck coming around the net and Matt Moulson dove to poke a rebound in to extend the lead to 4-1 at 13:09. J.T. Miller brought the Rangers to 4-2 with his 22nd of the season with 34.7 seconds left in the middle period.
In the third, the Rangers had their first power play at 1:48, and an opportunity to close the gap, but had just two shots with the man-advantage. Stepan did redirect Chris Kreider’s shot past Johnson from the doorstep to move within a goal at 4-3 at 4:52. The Rangers had an enormous opportunity with a five-on-three at 12:12 due to hooking and interference penalties, but could not connect. “We had the looks to at least give ourselves a chance,” said an optimistic Stepan.