After the game, there was a word echoing around the Rangers dressing room: Embarrassing.
With a fully healthy set of forwards for the first time in months, an optimistic Rangers coach Alain Vigneault had said before last night’s game with the Dallas Stars: “It’s almost like starting over.”
It was embarrassing, is what it was.
But for two periods, the backsliding Blueshirts continued their dreadful play, leaving wide-open space in front of their net and Henrik Lundqvist often looked lost, sinking deeper into his slump, appearing to have issues with confidence and tracking the puck. He gave up seven goals at the Garden for the first time in his career and was pulled after two periods.
“It’s embarrassing, frustrating and disappointing at the same time,” said Lundqvist. “There were a lot of opportunities in front and I need to find a way to get going. [This stretch] is definitely a low point . . . The bottom line is I have to find another level; it’s not good enough.”
The Rangers didn’t put enough shots on goaltender Antti Niemi through two periods, and despite scoring three goals in the third lost their season-high third straight game in a 7-6 decision at Madison Square Garden.
The first concerted push, driven by desperation, came in the second period when the out-of-sync, passionless Rangers scored twice on goals by Mika Zibanejad, returning after missing 26 games with a broken fibula, and the first goal by Pavel Buchnevich since his return three games ago, to trim the Dallas lead to 4-3 at 12:06.
But Lundqvist, who has allowed four or more goals in six of his last eight starts, couldn’t stand his ground. He blundered, turning the wrong way while looking for a puck behind the net and Patrick Sharp stuffed in his second goal of the game, short-circuiting any chance of a tie. Adam Cracknell beat Lundqvist glove-side three minutes later and Cody Eakin scored to make it 7-3 at 17:40.
Backup Magnus Hellberg relived Lundqvist at the start of the third. But all the action was at the other end as the Rangers stormed back for three goals.
Derek Stepan, who scored the first goal of the game just 27 seconds in, fed Chris Kreider at 3:11 of the third on the Blueshirts’ first power play of the game, and scored his second of the game at 5:31. Zibanejad’s pass in front deflected past Niemi to trim the lead with the third goal of the period at 7:26. That chased Niemi, who was replaced by Kari Lehtonen.
Hellberg didn’t give up a goal either and made a big save on Sharp with 8:20 to play.
The Rangers, who allowed seven goals for the third time in a game since Dec. 20, fell behind 3-1 in the first, with Patrick Eaves’ rebound at 12:34 and Sharp’s first coming 12 seconds later after Nick Holden’s turnover. Dallas was outshooting the Blueshirts 9-2 and Lundqvist had looked steady at that point. But Lundqvist couldn’t stop Jamie Benn at 17:40.
In the second, Kreider tussled with Eakin, who had been suspended for four games for charging Lundqvist in the teams’ last meeting on Dec. 15. Antoine Roussel scored unguarded in front at 4:22. The Stars had scored four times on 13 shots.
Said Stepan: “We played two periods of hockey where we leave our goaltender out to dry. It’s quite embarrassing.”
And Dan Girardi backed him up: “I’ve been here a long time and those first two periods were embarrassing.”
Henrik Lundqvist has had a tough time in net in his last four games (he relieved an injured Antti Raanta in one of them):
GOALS ALLOWED 20
SAVE PCT. 823