When the Rangers fail, it is generally because of poor starts and defensive breakdowns.

In last night's game against the Senators, in which the Rangers started sluggishly, a massive breakdown allowed Chris Kelly to beat Henrik Lundqvist from alone in front on Jarkko Ruutu's pass from behind the net with 2:24 left in regulation. That snapped a 1-1 tie and sent the Rangers to yet another home defeat.

Kelly's empty-netter for the hat trick with 0.8 of a second left put the finishing touches on the Blueshirts' 3-1 loss, their ninth at Madison Square Garden compared with six wins.

The Sean Avery-Erik Christensen-Marian Gaborik line, which had nine points Thursday against the Islanders, had only one shot, from Gaborik, who was a minus-3. And they were on ice with defensemen Michael Sauer and Steve Eminger when the game-winner occurred. The Rangers couldn't clear the puck and were too late in finding the quicker Senators.

"That's a line with two minutes left, they have to defend,'' coach John Tortorella said. "The whole group on the ice has to defend, not just one person.''

Lundqvist (22 saves) took some blame. "The puck was behind the net,'' he said, "and I didn't pick up the guy until it was too late.''

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The guy was Kelly, who has only six goals this season and produced his first hat trick in his 434th NHL game. He also capitalized on a bad pass and a turnover for an unassisted shorthander to open the scoring at 4:27 of the second. It was the first goal for the Senators, who were shut out in their previous two games, in almost 203 minutes.

"It's an awful play by Gabby as far as passing the puck to [Derek Stepan],'' said Tortorella, whose power play was 0-for-4 besides allowing the shorthander. "Don't blame Step. He's put in a tough spot. Our power play was oh-fer, but we had some good looks. He isn't the problem. There are a few other people that are the problem. I think he's quarterbacking it pretty well. We'll have to teach him some more.'

Gaborik, who thought he was pulled down with no call before the goal, acknowledged his weak pass. "I have to make a better play to Step there,'' he said. "It kind of bounced on me a little bit and he couldn't do much.''

The Rangers tied it at 10:50 of the second with their own shorthander. Ruslan Fedotenko was off for high-sticking, and Brandon Prust scooted down the right side as Marc Staal came down the middle with Erik Karlsson back. Prust's shot beat Pascal Leclaire to the short side.

In the first period, when they managed only five shots, the Rangers were so dreadful that Tortorella called timeout at 4:09.

"That certainly didn't help us, we were still awful,'' he said. "Our guys were asleep in the first 20 minutes. Why we were asleep, I don't have an answer, so there's no sense in asking.

"I'm hoping this was a blip on the screen. It wasn't just one person, it was everybody. I hope we learn our lesson. I thought we regrouped. But you could just sense it, when we couldn't score that second goal, you knew something was going to happen.''

So the Rangers (16-12-1), after sweeping the Islanders, took another step back in an inconsistent dance that has plagued them all season.