DENVER — The Rangers put forth a strong effort, but it wasn’t enough against the hottest team in the NHL.
Henrik Lundqvist was sharp and kept his team in the game, but the undermanned Rangers couldn’t stop the streaking Avalanche and lost, 3-1, at Pepsi Center on Saturday.
Colorado scored an empty-net goal with one second left to clinch its ninth straight win. Pavel Buchnevich scored for the Rangers, who missed on several chances to tie it late in the third period. In the final minute, a shot by Rick Nash hit the post.
“They’re feeling it right now, there’s no question,” said Lundqvist, who made 34 saves. “Their top guys are playing really well and make a difference for them . . . I really liked the way we battled. We worked really hard against a really good team that has a ton of confidence right now.”
The injury-depleted Rangers, already missing regulars Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes, Kevin Shattenkirk and Marc Staal, were without leading goal-scorer Michael Grabner (flu), who missed a game for the first time this season. That forced emergency call-up Daniel Catenacci to make his Rangers debut.
It doesn’t get easier for the Rangers with three more games on this road trip, which continues against the Kings in Los Angeles on Sunday night.
“We didn’t get the result, but we fought all the way to the end,” defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. “We can look at that as a positive to continue on this road trip.”
The loss tightened the wild- card standings in the Eastern Conference. Philadelphia is only one point behind the Rangers for the final playoff spot after its 3-1 win over the Devils on Saturday.
“After a real good start at the beginning of the third, [Colorado] brought it up a notch and we had a tough time there,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. “We had a couple of looks at the end but weren’t able to score.”
The Avalanche took a 2-0 lead on goals by Erik Johnson midway through the first period and Nathan MacKinnon early in the second. MacKinnon used defenseman Steven Kampfer as a screen and beat Lundqvist with a low shot.
The Rangers (24-18-5) answered MacKinnon’s goal during their only power play of the game. Buchnevich came down the slot and tipped Mats Zuccarello’s pass by Jonathan Bernier (27 saves) at 6:55 of the second period for his 13th goal, giving the Rangers momentum.
“The power play came up with a big goal and it was a pretty tight-checking game after that,” forward J.T. Miller said. “They were getting it in and getting deep for the most part, and I thought we had some really good shifts where we could have capitalized.”
The Rangers had a great chance to tie it early in the third period when Jimmy Vesey and Nick Holden fanned on attempts to knock in a rebound sitting in Colorado’s crease.
Lundqvist came off for an extra skater with 1:15 left, and after an icing put the faceoff in the Rangers’ end again with about 30 seconds to go, Nash had a great look on the side of the net but his backhander grazed the post and crossbar and out.
“Even though they got quite a few shots, the chances on both sides weren’t very high, maybe in the 10, 11 range,” Vigneault said. “There were good looks on both sides, goaltenders did what they had to do, and at the end of the night, they got one more than we did.”