So much had changed since the Rangers and Flyers last met. The Flyers changed their leadership and the Rangers, who were flying high on Thanksgiving, have come crashing back to Earth.
The teams got together again Sunday night at Madison Square Garden in the final game before the NHL goes dark for the three-day Christmas break, and the Flyers played the role of The Grinch, dealing the Rangers a 3-2 shootout loss when Patrick Nolan scored the only goal in the fourth round. The red-hot Kevin Hayes, needing to score to extend the shootout, went to his backhand and missed wide.
The Rangers are 15-14-6 for 36 points, six points out of a playoff spot. They will return to action Thursday at the Garden against the Blue Jackets. The Flyers are 15-16-4.
“I thought we battled well,’’ Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist said. “I really thought we would get the two points. We need it. I looked this morning at the standings and the separation is getting bigger, and we’ve got to start winning here if we want to be part of that race. And take this break and regroup and realize how desperate we need to be coming back.’’
Lundqvist, who hadn’t played since the Dec. 16 overtime loss to Vegas, sounded like a man trying hard to be positive despite being concerned about the reality facing his team. After going 3-7-1 in their first 11 games, then going 9-1-1 in their next 11, the Rangers are 3-6-4 in their last 13, beginning with that last meeting against the Flyers, that awful, no-show 4-0 loss in Philadelphia the day after Thanksgiving.
Before the game, coach David Quinn said: “I think when you play as poorly as we did against them after Thanksgiving, I would hope that that sits in our belly a little bit, gives us a nauseating feeling. Because if I’m the Philadelphia Flyers, I don’t know how much respect I have, or how good I think the New York Rangers are, after that performance.’’
Not long after that game, the Flyers fired general manager Ron Hextall and coach Dave Hakstol and named former Islanders coach Scott Gordon as interim coach.
On Sunday, the Flyers started goalie Michal Neuvirth, playing his third game of the season and second since returning from injured reserve with an undisclosed injury. The 30-year-old from the Czech Republic made 32 saves in his first win since March 28. Lundqvist stopped 29 shots.
Both teams played Saturday, and the first two periods lacked much excitement. The Rangers took the lead in the first when Chris Kreider took a pretty pass from Hayes — who extended his points streak to seven games — and beat Neuvirth at 10:05 for his 17th goal. The Flyers tied it in the second when Michael Raffl scored his first goal at 1:46.
The Flyers took the lead early in the third. After the Rangers were called for too many men on the ice, Wayne Simmonds jammed in a rebound on the power play at 5:01 for his 11th goal. The Rangers tied it 22 seconds later when Boo Nieves found himself uncovered in the low slot, Lias Andersson fed him from the right corner and Nieves banged in the pass for his first goal.