The exhilarating, post-trade deadline sweep of their three-game Western Canada trip had the Rangers feeling good about themselves for the first time in several weeks. But Tuesday’s matchup with the Winnipeg Jets at the Garden represented a major step up in class over the likes of Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton, and things didn’t end as well this time.
Patrik Laine, the 19-year-old second-year forward who began the night tied for fourth among the league’s top goal-scorers, recorded his first hat trick of the season for Winnipeg to lead the Jets to their 40th victory, 3-0 over the Rangers, ending the Blueshirts’ modest three-game win streak.
Jets goaltender Steve Mason, playing for the first time since suffering his second concussion of the season Jan. 12, made 31 saves to earn his first win since Jan. 9.
“That’s a real good team we played tonight and they were able to get their best shooter to get a couple good looks and they were able to shut it down,’’ Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said.
“They’re very good,’’ defenseman Brady Skjei said of the Jets. “Obviously, at the front, they’ve got a ton of skill and if you get those top guys some time and space they make you pay.’’
The Rangers now head off to Tampa for a meeting with the Lightning Thursday and a reunion with their former teammates, J.T. Miller, Anton Stralman, Dan Girardi and former captains Ryan Callahan and Ryan McDonagh. The Lightning has the league’s best record, and beat intrastate rival Florida on Tuesday.
The Jets sit second in the Central Division and third overall in the Western Conference. And they opened the scoring when Laine fired a long wrist shot over Henrik Lundqvist’s shoulder with 55.7 seconds left in the first period for his 36th goal of the season. Laine made it 2-0 at 11:01 of the second when he cut from the left wing to the middle and whipped another wrister past Lundqvist for goal No. 37, a career-high. His third goal came in the final minute of the game into an empty net.
But as impressed as they were with Laine and the Jets, the Rangers insisted the game would have been different if only they had converted on some of the opportunities they had early.
Struggling forward Mats Zuccarello, whose assist in the 3-2 win over Edmonton Saturday night was his first point in six games, had two golden chances to score but came up empty. Late in the first period, with the game scoreless at the time, he skated in on Mason and went around the net, then attempted a backhand wraparound that slid across the goal line and clanked off the far post and out.
Then, late in the second period, with the Rangers down 2-0, Zuccarello found himself standing unchecked at the back post when Jimmy Vesey’s slick, cross-crease pass came sliding across to him with Mason out at the top of the crease and the net completely empty behind him. But Zuccarello’s sweeping shot went right into the back of Mason, instead of into the back of the net.
“I know I’m not a good goal-scorer, but those should go in,” Zuccarello said. “That’s just how it goes right now.’’