The Rangers have been fighting hard, for weeks now, to stay in the playoff race, and they’ve steadfastly focused on the game in front of them, and not spent a lot of time being discouraged by the reality suggested by the big picture.
But after Thursday’s 3-2 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers at Madison Square Garden, well, there didn’t seem to be much point in denying the obvious. The playoffs are almost completely out of reach now.
Not only did the Rangers lose, but the Boston Bruins, who currently hold the fourth and final playoff spot in the East Division, won their sixth straight game, and their second straight against last-place Buffalo. And the Bruins have one more game remaining against Buffalo on Friday.
"We know what's at stake every game at this point,’’ defenseman Adam Fox said. "There's only so many left. But you know we're gonna keep fighting… Obviously, Boston winning, us losing, it hurts. But you know, we’ve got a resilient group in there. I think we'll just keep fighting and take it game by game.’’
With Thursday’s results, the Rangers (23-18-6) now trail the Bruins (27-12-6) by eight points, with nine games remaining. The Bruins have 11 games left.
Two power play goals by James van Riemsdyk erased a 1-0 Rangers lead and gave the Flyers a 2-1 lead midway through the third period, and Philadelphia made it 3-1 on Jakub Voracek’s snap shot from the left circle at 14:07. Artemi Panarin gave the Rangers one last chance when he scored on a one-timer from Fox with 2:00 remaining. The Rangers couldn’t finish the comeback, however.
"Usually when we've had games like we did against the Islanders (a 6-1 loss Tuesday), we've responded,’’ Rangers coach David Quinn said. "This is the first time all year that this hasn't happened. And I don't know, maybe the realization of the situation we're in kind of took the wind out of our sails after the Islander game… You just can't take the amount of penalties we took in the second period and then take a four minute penalty in the third… We've been a resilient group all year and we certainly weren't tonight.’’
The Rangers led 1-0 on a Brendan Smith goal in the first period, but took four penalties in the second period, handing the Flyers three power plays and one penalty shot. They converted on the third power play of the period, when Travis Konecny’s shot hit van Riemsdyk in the face and ricocheted in behind Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin (33 saves) at 15:56 to tie it 1-1.
Libor Hajek was called for hooking Joel Farabee on a breakaway with 54.3 seconds left, but Shesterkin stopped Farabee’s backhand attempt on the penalty shot to keep it 1-1 going into the third.
But K’Andre Miller was given a double-minor for high sticking Sean Couturier at 8:14 of the third period, and the Flyers took advantage. The Rangers looked good killing the first two minutes of the power play, with Shesterkin making a spectacular glove save on a shot by Ivan Provorov. But on the ensuing faceoff, former Ranger Kevin Hayes won the draw from Mika Zibanejad and Provorov fired a shot that van Riemsdyk – who had left the game after his first goal and didn’t return until 3:36 into the third – deflected past Shesterkin to put the Flyers ahead at 10:29.
The Rangers played without defenseman Jacob Trouba, who had suffered an upper body injury in Tuesday’s game against the Islanders and is officially listed as day-to-day. With his options to replace Trouba limited, Quinn inserted 20-year-old rookie Zac Jones into the lineup to make his NHL debut. Because, why not?
Quinn also shook up his lines, dropping slumping Chris Kreider to the third line and promoting 19-year-old Alexis Lafreniere, last fall’s No. 1 draft pick overall, to Kreider’s spot on the left of Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich.