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Rangers doomed by slow start in potential playoff preview vs. Canadiens

Shea Weber #6 of the Montreal Canadiens celebrates

Shea Weber #6 of the Montreal Canadiens celebrates his first period goal against Henrik Lundqvist #30 of the New York Rangers with his teammates at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, Mar. 4, 2017 in New York City. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Memo to Rangers fans: Be careful what you wish for.

For those hoping that the Blueshirts remain in the first wild-card spot and cross over to play the top team in the Atlantic Division — guess who, Montreal — some other daydreaming may be in order.

The Canadiens’ 4-1 victory over a mostly listless Rangers squad Saturday night at the Garden concluded a sweep of the three-game season series. The Rangers won’t admit it, but perhaps they too were dreaming, looking forward to some sun in Florida and North Carolina during a three-game trip this week.

The Rangers have scored two or fewer goals in the past eight games. “We’ve got to start building some confidence in our game,” Marc Staal said. “We’re a little tentative . . . It just seems like there’s a lot of second-guessing going on.”

The Rangers, who have been outscored by the Habs 12-7, dropped to 19-14-2 at home.

“It’s not the last two or three periods, it’s the last four games,” Henrik Lundqvist said of their 1-3 mark. “We played four really good teams, and if you’re not on your game, you’re not going to win. Somehow we found a way in Boston. I don’t know if we deserved it, but we found a way. Obviously, if we want to go anywhere, we need to figure it out at home.”

The game started with yet another distressing, on-their-heels first period as the Rangers managed only six shots on Carey Price and failed to dictate the pace. The Canadiens, 6-2 under new coach Claude Julien, skated effectively in all three zones.

Lundqvist stopped the first eight shots, and after the team’s best player Saturday night, rookie Pavel Buchnevich, stymied Alex Galchenyuk by backchecking hard on a rush, Shea Weber’s innocent wrister from the right side went through bodies and off the stick of Adam Clendening, standing alone in front, for a 1-0 lead at 12:51.

In the second period, the Rangers carried the play for five minutes with a faster pace but couldn’t cash in. Brandon Pirri whiffed with a half-open net and the Rangers continued to overpass rather than shoot. Max Pacioretty then pushed Ryan McDonagh off the puck and Phillip Danault found Artturi Lehkonen for a one-timer off the rush from the right for a 2-0 lead at 8:48.

Later in the period, Lundqvist blocked Galchenyuk’s shot, which went high, and he lost sight of it. Andrew Shaw gloved it down and sped behind the frozen goalie for an easy wraparound with 1:23 left.

With the Rangers trailing 3-0, Lundqvist stopped Pacioretty’s breakaway and Price foiled Chris Kreider, but the winger put the rebound in on Price’s short side at 1:44 of the third period.

Minutes later, the Habs drew the puck back to defenseman Jordie Benn near the blue line. Benn fired through a screen to restore the three-goal lead.

“It was an easy game for them. We didn’t make it hard on them,” McDonagh said. “When you’re a step slow against a team like that and you’re stuck in your zone a lot, it’s pretty cut-and-dry. It’s frustrating. We keep saying the same things in here.”

New York Sports