Without leading scorer Rick Nash, a late scratch with an undisclosed injury, the Rangers had to compensate against defensive-minded Montreal, which had won four straight.
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It didn't happen.
In a game with little flow, a clogged neutral zone, a lot of icings and few completed passes, the Rangers lost, 3-1, Tuesday night.
Before a subdued crowd, it was 1-1 going into the third period. With just 25 combined shots, it appeared all it would take was one to claim victory. Just 1:48 into the third, Montreal, which played a patient, shutdown style that "drained the pace," according to Brad Richards, took advantage, helped by Brandon Prust, whose energy was reminiscent of his play during the last two seasons as a Ranger.
With several Rangers caught up ice, the Canadiens burst in on a 3-on-2. Prust backhanded a pass across the crease with Lars Eller and Alex Galchenyuk untouched. The Russian rookie deflected the pass under the crossbar. With 1:06 left and Henrik Lundqvist pulled, Raphael Diaz made it 3-1 with a shorthanded empty-netter for the TKO. Prust played 16:26, had four hits and two shots, and was on ice for all three goals.
"They play extremely boring, but they're a smart team and didn't give up much," said Lundqvist, who finished with 15 saves as the Blueshirts fell to 8-6-1. Montreal rose to 11-4-1. The teams play on Saturday.
It was unclear whether Nash, who has three goals and nine assists, could return in Ottawa Thursday. The 28-year-old winger was a game-time decision against the Capitals on Sunday. He played 22:33 minutes, took eight shots and said after the win that in his mind, there was never any thought of not playing. He missed a season-subscriber event on Friday and did not practice Saturday. Tortorella said that Nash was "banged up" and had a maintenance day. Asked for an update before the game, Tortorella said: "None . . . he's out."
In the last four seasons in Columbus, the All-Star played 82, 75, 76 and 78 games before being traded last summer. He played with HC Davos in the Swiss League for part of the lockout, and returned after aggravating a groin injury.
Nash's head was driven into the boards by Milan Lucic on Feb. 12 in Boston, but he never left and scored in the shootout. He also played 24:59 two days later against the Islanders.
The Rangers struggled without him. In the first period, P.K. Subban pulled down Marian Gaborik on the left side, and a delayed penalty was called. Carl Hagelin retrieved the puck and got it to Stepan, who found Anton Stralman, who beat Carey Price for a 1-0 lead.
The Rangers couldn't hold it. Michael Del Zotto chased the puck into the corner, expecting an icing call. He said he and two other players heard "icing" but Tortorella said the officials told him they were calling "no icing" because Del Zotto had shielded Erik Cole. Josh Georges fed Max Pacioretty for a one-timer that beat Lundqvist to tie it at 1.