CALGARY, Alberta — If the fact that they didn’t fall behind by six goals this time constitutes improvement for the Rangers, then OK, they were a little better in Calgary in their first game of the new year than they were in Edmonton in their last game of the old year.
But the Rangers won’t be able to make themselves a legitimate contender for a playoff spot if they keep getting off to poor starts the way they did against the Flames on Thursday night.
Down two goals a little more than seven minutes into the game after two early Flames breakaways, the Rangers managed to get back into it. But they left Alberta empty-handed after their 4-3 loss to the Flames at the Saddledome.
“You give up two breakaways to start the game; your five-on-three gives up a goal — that really summarizes what our problems were,’’ said Rangers coach David Quinn, who was seething.
The Rangers did come back from 2-0 and 3-2 deficits to tie the score twice. Said Quinn, “I thought we did a better job in the second period battling back . . . But we’re just way too loose right now.’’
The defeat was the Rangers’ second straight and followed a 7-5 loss to the Oilers in Edmonton in which they rallied from 6-0 down to get within 6-5 and give themselves a chance. Had they managed to win that game, they would have been the first team in NHL history to win after trailing by six goals. But they didn’t.
“It’s all well and good to have a push, but it’s hard trying to play from behind every game,’’ forward Chris Kreider said. “We’ve got to get back to forcing turnovers and playing good ‘D’ and creating offense from a good defense.’’
The Rangers (19-17-4) fell to 1-2 on the current trip, which ends Saturday in Vancouver. The Rangers will hit the midpoint of the season with their 41st game.
They remained seven points out of the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.
Johnny Gaudreau’s breakaway goal at 4:15 of the first period put the Flames ahead 1-0, but after a pair of hooking penalies by Sam Bennett at 5:59 and Derek Ryan at 6:48, the Rangers had a five-on-three power play for 1:11.
But Calgary’s Mikael Backlund stole a pass from Tony DeAngelo, took off on a breakaway and beat Henrik Lundqvist (25 saves) for a rare three-on-five goal, putting the Flames up 2-0 at 7:16.
Twenty-six seconds later, though, with the Rangers still on the five-on-three, Jacob Trouba scored to make it 2-1. And 25 seconds after that, Filip Chytil banged in a pass from Kaapo Kakko to make it 2-2.
A giveaway by Brady Skjei deep in his own end led to a goal by Ryan that made it 3-2 at 13:18 of the first period.
Kakko’s first goal since Nov. 12 — ending a drought of 19 games — tied the score at 3-3 at 5:46 of the second period. He whipped a wrist shot through a maze of bodies that beat Calgary goalie Cam Talbot.
It was the Finnish rookie’s seventh goal of the season. His two points gave him 16, which tied him with Manny Malhotra for the most points in a season by an 18-year-old playing for the Rangers.
The tie did not last long, though, as Calgary’s Sean Monahan took a pass from Noah Hanifin in the slot and beat Lundqvist at 8:22 of the period.
Adam Fox, who had three assists for the Rangers, was booed when he touched the puck. Fox originally was drafted by the Flames but was traded to Carolina, who traded him to the Rangers in April.