Playing after three days off and without Gaborik, who was cut on the thigh by the skate of Henrik Lundqvist in practice on Tuesday, the Rangers crumbled under the weight of penalties and ineffectiveness on the power play, losing 2-1 to the Nashville Predators.
"When you are trying to crawl out of a hole and trying to gain some consistency in your game, your structure, your team concept and your discipline, at this time of year, is so important," coach John Tortorella said. "We are not good enough not to be dead on with that stuff."
At this point, having lost eight of the last 10, they are not good enough, period. Despite a scoring drought, Tortorella opted to go with seven defensemen, adding Corey Potter from Hartford because he believed some unnamed blueliners were banged up and might not finish.
In reality, it was the forwards who couldn't finish against goaltender Dan Ellis, who made 37 saves, including 18 in the third period, when the Rangers finally found some attack. That came too late, far too late in a game in which Lundqvist excelled again, with 34 saves, keeping the Rangers within a goal the entire night.
The game-winner came with the score tied at 1 in the second period. Michael Del Zotto was called for a hook and received an extra two minutes for unsportsmanlike conduct for jawing at referee Ian Walsh at 12:44. Tortorella scolded the 19-year-old, who was sent to the end of the bench to remain rooted for the rest of the period. "I just didn't agree with the call but I've got to control my emotions there," Del Zotto said. "I let the team down."
The penalty-killers came very close to escaping the four minutes shorthanded, but Brandon Dubinsky lost his stick and Michal Rozsival hit Ryan Callahan with a clearing attempt in front of Lundqvist. Colin Wilson quickly fired the loose puck from the right circle for a 2-1 lead at 16:10.
Del Zotto returned at the start of the third period, and Alex Sulzer pulled down Chris Drury at 2:45 behind the net, giving the Rangers a chance to improve on their 1-for-4 mark with the man advantage. They didn't, ended 1-for-6 and Ellis held off a desperate flurry by the Rangers in the final three minutes. He stopped Olli Jokinen, Vinny Prospal, Erik Christensen and Enver Lisin, and the Rangers couldn't score with Lundqvist pulled for the final 1:54.
The Rangers had tied the game at the tail end of a five-on-three for 59 seconds when Steve Sullivan went off for slashing at 8:51 of the second. Jokinen cut along the blue line to snare a clearing attempt and the Rangers set up with passes around the perimeter. Eventually, Jokinen's wide slapper was grabbed at the post by Vinny Prospal, who banked the puck in off Ellis at 9:48. It was the 12th goal of the season for Prospal, who had a career-high nine shots.
The Rangers dropped to 26-27-7. The Predators (32-22-5) went ahead 1-0 at 17:45 of the first on a shot by Kevin Klein from the right point through traffic that hit Jordan Tootoo. "I knew going into the game, I can't afford any mistakes," Lundqvist said. With 22 games to play and on the outside looking in at the playoffs, neither can his teammates.