LAS VEGAS — Pavel Buchnevich and Brendan Smith were scratched, Mats Zuccarello was back in the lineup after feeling sick on Saturday and backup Ondrej Pavelec was in the net. That wasn’t the biggest surprise on Sunday night.
Despite playing most of the game without center Kevin Hayes, who left with an injury, the Rangers went toe-to-toe with the best team in the Western Conference — the expansion Vegas Golden Knights — but lost, 2-1, on William Karlsson’s shot from the right circle at 8:58 of the third period.
“We had a little breakdown on their winning goal, sort of a bad change where we didn’t pick up the wide lane,’’ coach Alain Vigneault said. “We had some looks to tie it. Guys played hard.”
After the Golden Knights killed off their 20th straight power play — Rangers rookie Vinni Lettieri sped in all alone between the defense and had a golden chance but missed the net on his backhander from 12 feet at 7:25 of the third period — Vegas scored the tiebreaking goal.
When Reilly Smith came down the left side and drew all of the Rangers’ attention, his pass found Karlsson alone in the right circle. He beat Pavelec, who made 32 saves, scrambling to get to the right post.
“It’s tough,’’ said Pavelec, who made 32 saves. “We lost the game that we wanted to win before the break. We battled hard. Great atmosphere. I felt good, it was fun to play, but again, you can’t be happy with zero points.”
So in the final game before a well-deserved bye week for both teams, the Knights moved to 29-10-2 overall and 18-2-1 at home while the Rangers fell to 22-15-5 and 7-8-2 on the road.
“It was a gritty effort . . . frustrating for sure,’’ Brady Skjei said. “Seems like they had each line playing for 15 minutes. They’re a bunch of hard-working guys.”
Mika Zibanejad’s laser over Marc-Andre Fleury’s glove at 13:05 of the first period on passes from Michael Grabner and Lettieri gave the Blueshirts a 1-0 lead and had the contingent of Rangers fans roaring.
A minute later, the Golden Knights were penalized for having too many men on the ice. After the Rangers failed to connect on the power play, Ryan McDonagh, under duress, backhanded a pass to Paul Carey along the wall in the Rangers’ zone, and he lost the puck. James Neal grabbed it and sniped a shot over Pavelec’s left shoulder from the top of the left circle to tie it at 17:23. It was his 18th goal.
A few minutes later, Hayes, who had been crunched into the end boards by Nate Schmidt at 5:22 of the first, went off after playing only 2:44. He played only 17 seconds in the second period and the team said he was being evaluated with a lower-body injury.
The Golden Knights have been a remarkable story in their first season, and Vigneault, who was an assistant coach for the expansion Ottawa Senators, made this comparison: “I can tell you from my first experience with an expansion team back in ’92-93, the [expansion] rules were a lot different, so the quality of their players is different. But give this organization full credit.”
Pavelec, who was 2-0-1 with a 1.26 GAA and a .966 save percentage in his previous three starts, was in net for the Rangers instead of Henrik Lundqvist, whose 38 saves through overtime and three more in a shootout helped the Rangers earn a 2-1 win over the Coyotes in Arizona on Saturday.
Although Lundqvist would have four or five days to rest, the move was planned, Vigneault said. Pavelec, who stopped all 30 shots in regulation and two shots in a shootout on Dec. 27 against Washington for a shutout in his previous start, knew since the beginning of the week that this would be another opportunity.
“He’s playing well,” Vigneault said. “We’ve got two good goaltenders and feel it’s the right thing to do.”