In the first game of 2017, the Rangers looked as if they hadn’t shaken a New Year’s hangover and their three-game winning streak went by the boards.
Points are precious in the Metropolitan Division and the Rangers were unable to grab any after scoring 12 goals in two wins out West and a two-day break. The Blueshirts flat-out regressed, dug a three-goal hole against the NHL’s 28th-ranked team and were unable to climb out in a 4-1 loss at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night.
“They outworked us there in the first, and there’s no excuse for that,” said Ryan McDonagh. “It’s happened too many times here in this stretch; if we don’t find a way to bring that execution and intensity every night we’re going to fall off the pace. Lesson learned, and a hard turning point for us.
“We didn’t make a pass, and if we did then we tried to get a little too cute, we didn’t put enough pucks on the goalie, didn’t fight to get to the net, and they did. We put it on their tape a handful of times, special teams didn’t generate much on the power play and we give up a penalty-kill goal, so you can cross about everything off the list.”
In that first period, the Rangers were going through the motions. Their first shot on goal came from McDonagh at 9:54. The sharper Sabres hustled end-to-end, were quicker with their sticks, finished checks and scored twice. The first came from Zemgus Girgensons on the doorstep to convert a bounce off a skate at 12:17 by backhanding the puck over Henrik Lundqvist, who had won on Saturday in Colorado after missing two starts with the flu.
The Rangers started pressing with about four minutes left, launching four shots at Anders Nilsson (24 saves). But when Kevin Klein failed to get the puck to Mats Zuccarello, the dominos fell. Evander Kane, charging the net, slammed in a rebound of Sam Reinhart’s shot from the right side that glanced off Lundqvist’s right shoulder with 39 seconds left.
It escalated to 3-0 just 1:03 into the second, with Justin Bailey scoring unassisted — the first goal of his career — after a dreadful turnover by Klein. Bailey somehow eluded any backcheck by Michael Grabner for a freebie in the slot that slid under Lundqvist.
“Execution, in all zones, was the big thing,” said J.T. Miller. “Kinda killed us.”
Even the hot line of Chris Kreider, Derek Stepan and Zuccarello, which had collected 22 points in last four games, was blanked.
Nick Holden, above the left circle, one-timed a pass from Miller in the corner that beat Anders Nilsson at 15:55 for his eighth of the season.
But any third period comeback was quashed when Jimmy Vesey was whistled for hooking at 18 seconds. Sam Reinhart threaded a pass from the left side under Dan Girardi’s outstretched stick. Rising star Jack Eichel, who had scored twice in the third period in the Sabres’ 4-3 win over the Rangers on Dec. 1 in Buffalo, scored a gimme at 1:10.
“They were hungry, they came with a lot of speed and there was desperation in their game” said Lundqvist (15 saves), who couldn’t clean up after the breakdowns and mistakes. “In a game like this, you need to come up with one or two saves at the right time. It might be a different game.”
With the Flyers on tap Wednesday night, Lundqvist said: “I don’t think we should get stuck on this one, quickly analyze this and understand that it doesn’t matter who you play, you have to be at your top level.”