Shock and pain were evident on the faces of all of the Rangers after this one.
They had just dominated the third period. Jesper Fast’s goal had tied the score midway through the period, and the Rangers were throwing everything they had at Islanders goalie Robin Lehner, peppering him with rubber. The Isles couldn’t even get a shot off against Henrik Lundqvist — not one.
A goal was bound to come. It had to.
And it did — for the Islanders.
Josh Bailey’s redirection of Cal Clutterbuck’s centering pass was the only shot on goal the Isles got in the third period, but it was enough to send the Rangers to their fifth straight loss, a 4-3 decision that left the Blueshirts broken inside Madison Square Garden on Thursday night.
“We’ve had some heartbreaking losses, but that’s right up there. It might be at the top of the list,’’ a grim-faced coach David Quinn said. “To come out the way we did in the third period and play with the pace and the energy that we did, it says an awful lot about our character. But character’s not getting us wins right now.’’
Before the game, Quinn had talked about how the period between the Christmas break and the All-Star break in late January “really makes or breaks your season in a lot of ways.’’
At 17-19-7 for 41 points — 11 points out of a playoff spot — the season looks more broken than made for the Rangers.
Trying to build off a strong showing in Tuesday’s 4-2 loss to Vegas in the finale of their 0-3 road trip, the Rangers started the game with a clear sense of urgency. With the Islanders starting their fourth line of Clutterbuck, Casey Cizikas and Matt Martin, Quinn started his fourth line, and Cody McLeod and Martin did a little dance with one another in the neutral zone right after the opening faceoff.
Seventeen seconds into the game, Ross Johnston — against whom McLeod was fighting when he broke his hand the last time the teams played — dropped a glove and was sent off for unsportsmanlike conduct. That led to a power-play goal by Ryan Strome that put the Rangers ahead 1-0 at 1:38.
The lead lasted only 53 seconds, though, as Mathew Barzal (goal, two assists) went to the backhand to beat Lundqvist (16 saves) on a breakaway at 2:31. McLeod and Martin did fight, at 7:41 of the period, and 28 seconds later, Jimmy Vesey was sent off for tripping. The Islanders took the lead with a power-play goal by Jordan Eberle at 8:51.
Kevin Shattenkirk’s goal tied it for the Rangers at 1:11 of the second period, but with Marc Staal off for holding, Anders Lee deflected Nick Leddy’s shot past Lundqvist to make it 3-2 Isles.
But after Fast chipped in the rebound of Neal Pionk’s shot that flipped high in the air and dropped right in front of Fast, the Rangers had to think they’d win for sure. Or at least get the game to overtime.
They were wrong, and that’s why this loss hurt so much more than any of the previous four.
“Yeah, when you’re losing like we are, it does,’’ Staal said. “ . . . We did enough things, I thought, to be able to win a game, and we just couldn’t find a way to do it. A minute-and-a-half left, they get a chance, and that’s the way it’s going for us right now.’’
Notes & quotes: Kevin Hayes missed his fourth straight game with an upper-body injury, but he participated in the morning skate, wearing a red no-contact jersey . . . Tony DeAngelo, who played in Vegas after sitting out three games, was out of the lineup, replaced by Fredrik Claesson. Brendan Smith was the Rangers’ other healthy scratch.
The fierce rivalry between the Rangers and Islanders started back on their first meeting at Nassau Coliseum on Oct. 21, 1972. Players and fans from both teams have changed over the years, but the level of play and competitive fire between these teams has never faded.