LOS ANGELES — As improbable as it may have seemed before the season started, a look at the NHL standings today would show that, 30 games into the season, the still-rebuilding Rangers are absolutely in the hunt for a wild-card playoff spot. And this four-game Western trip, which got off to such a fabulous start with a stunning and complete victory Sunday evening in Las Vegas, could provide a big boost to their hopes of making the postseason.
“We’re 15-11-(3) and we’re in a position to make the playoffs, as we stand here today,’’ Rangers coach David Quinn said before the Rangers took on the lowly Los Angeles Kings late Tuesday night. “And that’s what we’re focused on.’’
Their quest for the postseason, though, took a momentary step back when the Rangers lost to the Kings, 3-1, Tuesday, in the second game of the trip. The Blueshirts’ loss, combined with Carolina’s 6-3 win over Edmonton and Montreal’s 4-1 win over Pittsburgh, dropped the Rangers to five points out of the second wild card spot. The trip continues for the Rangers Thursday in San Jose against the Sharks before concluding Saturday in Anaheim against the Ducks.
Dustin Brown scored with 10.1 seconds left in the first period and Tyler Toffoli scored midway through the second to power the Kings, who ended a four-game losing streak. The Rangers lost their third game in the last five.
The day began with such promise. Having already taken two points from their 5-0 win over Vegas, the rest of the trip seemed to offer a real chance to make hay in the standings. The rebuilding Kings (12-18-2) are last in the Western Conference, and their 24 points entering the game were the third-fewest in the NHL. The Sharks are 15-16-2 (32 points) after Tuesday’s loss to Nashville, and the Ducks, 13-14-4 (30 points), are second-to-last in the West.
So, on paper, at least, the opportunity was there for the Rangers, 7-3-1 in the 11 games before Tuesday night, to pick up some points on this trip.
In his pregame meeting with reporters, Quinn was asked if he was concerned his players might look at the Kings’ record and maybe not put forth their best effort Tuesday. He said he’d talked to them about that.
“This is the National Hockey League,’’ Quinn said. “I’m hoping our guys don’t look at the opponent and think, ‘This might be an easy one.’ There are no easy games in this league.’’
The Kings certainly weren’t on this night. They took the lead with 10.1 seconds remaining in a sleepy first period, when Los Angeles pinned the Rangers in their zone and got the Blueshirts running around and goaltender Henrik Lundqvist diving all around before Toffoli’s cross-ice pass to Dustin Brown caught the Rangers out of position and Brown fired the puck into an empty net as Lundqvist scrambled in vain to get across in time.
Lundqvist was back in net for the first time since last Monday, when he lost to Vegas at Madison Square Garden, 4-1. The 37-year-old had been scheduled to start Friday against Montreal (a 2-1 loss) but was scrubbed from that game because of a back injury that he said Monday was fully healed. He looked fine, but was under tremendous pressure the first two periods, facing 21 shots in the first 40 minutes, plus a couple that hit the goalposts. Toffoli made it 2-0 when he outmuscled Rangers defenseman Ryan Lindgren at the crease and whacked in a rebound for his seventh goal of the season, at 13:22.
Artemi Panarin finally got the Rangers on the board with a six-on-four power play goal with 29.7 seconds left, but Adrian Kempe scored into an empty net for L.A. with 15 seconds left to close the scoring.