It was a game that required the Rangers to remind themselves of the fundamentals: pace and spacing and structure.
No, not Friday night’s loss to the Canadiens — though, to be sure, that stung plenty. The game David Quinn was referring to was on Thursday, in Columbus, when the Rangers won.
But that’s how things go in the NHL. Sometimes you win games you should lose, and sometimes a goal in the final minute of play means you lose a game you very well could have won.
That occurred Friday night, when a much livelier Rangers crew bounced back from a lackluster performance the night before . . . only to lose to the Canadiens, 2-1, on Nate Thompson’s goal with 1:07 left in regulation at Madison Square Garden.
“I certainly liked our intentions much better. Night and day from a defensive standpoint,” Quinn said. “That was disappointing. Two teams that looked like they played last night and unfortunately, we were the first team to blink.”
That happened when Nick Cousins barreled in on goaltender Alexandar Georgiev. His shot was deflected, Georgiev tried to slide to stop it and Thompson cleaned it up for the winner.
“I have to look at the replay,” said Georgiev, who otherwise had his second strong night in a row, making 31 saves. “Maybe I should have gotten up on my feet and had a better chance of stopping it.”
Georgiev played in part because of his game-anchoring performance Thursday and in part because Henrik Lundqvist was sick (though not ill enough to be unavailable if he had been needed). Friday also heralded the return of Marc Staal (out 13 games) and Greg McKegg (out six).
“It’s tough,” Staal said. “It’s a funny game sometimes. I thought we deserved better tonight. You know, it’s one of those things where we play again in a few days and we’ve just got to have a short memory — grow from it, learn from it.”
The Rangers had 29 shots on Carey Price, who looked to be in peak form, especially during a late-period flurry in the second period, when he made five saves in the final 1:35.
The Canadiens got on board first, with their top line pushing seamlessly out of their own zone and taking it all the way up the ice, culminating in two tidy connections: Tomas Tatar fed Phillip Danault and Danault cut down the slot to find Brendan Gallagher, sidled up near the net. Gallagher’s wrist flick beat Georgiev on the glove side as the Canadiens took a 1-0 lead at 10:37 of the first period.
The Rangers got even 2:30 into the second period, courtesy of an unlikely source. The puck skittered past Canadiens defenseman Otto Leskinen near center ice, giving Brendan Smith a breakaway opportunity. His backhand to the top shelf over Price was his third goal of the season.
Price shut it down after that, and by the final buzzer, the Rangers found themselves doing hockey’s version of penance for their sloppy play the night before.
“You don’t justify this game by the way we played and the way we got two points yesterday,” Mika Zibanejad said. “I don’t think that’s how that stuff works. Obviously, it stinks. I thought we were better than last night . . . This one stings.”