ST. LOUIS - Before rookie goalie Chad Johnson's second NHL start last night, Rangers coach John Tortorella said: "He's not the kind of guy who allows himself to become flustered. You could see that in his first start where there's not a lot of extra motion. He's just there."
But with the Rangers' sagging offense, the 23-year-old Johnson - like No. 1 netminder Henrik Lundqvist - has little margin for error, and a mistake in the third period cost him in the Blues' 4-1 victory.
With St. Louis leading 2-1, Alex Steen began a rush in center ice, circled the net and banked the puck off Johnson's arm at 8:31 of the third period when Johnson couldn't get to the right post in time.
That gave the Blues a 3-1 lead, and David Backes added an empty-netter with 12.1 seconds remaining. The Rangers took their third straight loss as they managed only their fifth goal in five games.
Brian Boyle ended the Rangers' scoreless drought of 172 minutes, tying the score at 1 when he stepped out from behind the net and slid a backhander past Chris Mason and inside the far post at 7:37 of the second period. It was Boyle's third of the season; the assist went to Aaron Voros, playing only his third game in the last 19. But Blues defenseman Roman Polak's low slap shot deflected off a Ranger skate and into the net to break the tie only 45 seconds into the third period.
The Rangers (22-19-7) will host Montreal Sunday night at the Garden, with Lundqvist in goal. The Rangers know that finding a sub for Lundqvist, who is expected to play about 70 games - not including the Olympics - is critical.
"If you want to get where you want to be, your backup not only needs to play games, he needs to win," Tortorella said. "That's not to add any pressure on [Johnson], but we have to find out about this position. It isn't ideal, what's going on with this position right now. I think within the organization, we've handled it as best we could."
In the first period, the Blues erased a brief but spirited Rangers start, beating them to pucks, outmuscling them on the boards and forcing three penalties.
Six seconds after Wade Redden went to the box, David Perron scored his 13th of the season on a power-play wrister from the left circle. Keith Tkachuk grabbed a rebound in front and fed him at 14:07. Meanwhile, Mason, who is 4-1-1 in his last six games, extended the Rangers' scoreless streak to 164:23.
Johnson, who was born in Calgary and starred at the University of Alaska/Fairbanks, allowed only one goal on 32 shots through overtime against Atlanta on Jan. 7, and made three of five saves in the shootout in a poised performance in the 2-1 loss. The 6-3 netminder also recorded an assist. He was not as sharp last night.
"I feel like I sort of know what to expect," he said Saturday morning. "The first five minutes will set the tone while I try to read a lot of things, the players, the speed, the lighting, the ice. I just want to improve, like you would on any level."