The postgame locker room did not have a defeated air; more like airless, from all the oxygen the Rangers have been needing just to get through this past week.
They didn't quite make it through Hell Week successfully. Last night's 4-3 loss to the Panthers was a mess, one befitting the ragtag Rangers - six of the 18 dressed skaters have spent time in the minors this season; nine have fewer than 100 games' experience in a Ranger uniform.
Three of the four Florida goals bounced off Rangers, including a game-winner off Artem Anisimov's back, up in the air, over Henrik Lundqvist and in with 8:19 to play. That came after yet another third-period rally by the Rangers, who came back from 3-1 down with a couple of gritty, ugly goals - off Brandon Prust's leg, and a Brian Boyle jam shot from a crowd in the crease.
But the Panthers' one shot in the third period stood up, and the Rangers head into the break a little down. But certainly not out. "We did a good job coming back again, but it didn't work out," said Marc Staal, who will head with Lundqvist and Derek Stepan to Raleigh, N.C., this weekend for the All-Star festivities. "These last couple weeks, we've been trying to get as many points as we could with a few regulars out."
They've gotten points, with a 3-2 record in the last week. No style points, of course, not with their leading scorer (Brandon Dubinsky), leading defenseman scorer (Dan Girardi) and three other regular forwards out, including Ryan Callahan. They've had to grind and dig even more than usual to grab points in Atlanta and Washington, and they dug to come back again Tuesday night. "We get a break now, and our team needs it," Boyle said. "We got some points, some good road wins. Would have been nice to get this one at home too."
But the Rangers will take this six-day break. When they reconvene before Tuesday's game with the Penguins, Callahan and Girardi should be ready to return; Dubinsky and Ruslan Fedotenko will be a week closer.
Tuesday night showed that the Rangers could fight their way through these injuries, but only to a point. Chad Kolarik, Evgeny Grachev and Michael Del Zotto still need time in Connecticut. Michael Sauer, so strong in Washington on Monday filling Girardi's spot, was a little off Tuesday night as a top-pair player with Staal. Matt Gilroy and Ryan McDonagh might not be ready for 20-plus minutes a night.
McDonagh and Sauer and Mats Zuccarello, who created seemingly every good scoring chance the Rangers had in a three-assist night, will be here for the long haul. John Tortorella knows that this time of roster stress will be a benefit.
"This will help the organization in the long run," Tortorella said. "It's certainly given us a chance to look at more people here than we would have."
But now, with five games in seven days down and six days off, Tortorella would certainly rather look at the familiar names on the backs of jerseys. He'd rather look at his lineup and know which piece goes where for all situations.
The Rangers passed another gut check this week. When the break ends, there will be 30 games left and more points needed to secure a top eight spot in the East.
There were some excuses to be made for Tuesday night, injuries and bad bounces galore. The Rangers didn't make them.
After the break, the Rangers have to breathe some life into their playoff run.