Saturday marks the second anniversary of The Letter, when Rangers management announced to fans that after more than a decade of being a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, it was time to rebuild.
First came the trading away of some popular veterans and the acquisition of prospects and draft picks. That happened again last season.
Now the Rangers — though still rebuilding — clearly are on the rise. Making the playoffs this spring would be a lot to ask, though. And games like Friday night’s 3-2 loss to the Sabres at the Garden will not help.
“I’m surprised about tonight, I’m going to be honest with you,’’ coach David Quinn said. “Tonight was — I didn’t see this coming. It’s something that I didn’t expect. At the end of the day, our top players have to be way better than they were tonight. And our top players were nowhere near what we need them to be to have a chance to win night in and night out.
“And it wasn’t just two of them,’’ he added. “It was eight or nine of them that had bad nights. We have a hard time when that many guys have bad nights.’’
Even so, the Rangers nearly rallied from 3-0 down. Goals by Mika Zibanejad at 17:07 of the third period and Chris Kreider at 18:22 — in a six-on-four situation — gave the Rangers a chance to steal at least a point.
But ultimately, goals by Zemgus Girgensons in the first period, Sam Reinhart in the second and old friend Jimmy Vesey in the third pushed the Rangers into a deep hole, and Buffalo goalie Carter Hutton (37 saves) would not let them climb all the way out.
The loss dropped the Rangers to 26-23-4 and kept them nine points out of the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with 29 games remaining. But Jacob Trouba didn’t see the loss to a Buffalo team that is 24-23-8 as particularly painful.
“I don’t think you really look at it and say now, now’s the time we have to win,’’ Trouba said. “You could have said we had to win the first half of the season and put ourselves in a better spot. But yeah, we know we’re going to need some points to get into contention here and get in the playoffs.’’
The Rangers will close out the homestand on Sunday with a game against the Los Angeles Kings. After that, they will head out on the road next week, visiting Winnipeg on Tuesday, Minnesota on Thursday and Columbus on Friday.
Alexandar Georgiev started in goal for the Rangers, his first start since Jan. 21, the last game before the break. He did get 20 minutes of action Monday, when he played the third period in relief of Henrik Lundqvist in a 5-3 loss to Dallas. Georgiev made 25 saves, and Quinn absolved him of any blame.
“I thought he was solid,’’ Quinn said.
Girgensons scored at 11:26 of the first period after Buffalo defenseman Colin Miller failed to keep a puck in at the left-wing boards. Rangers winger Pavel Buchnevich, who had chased the puck up the boards and out, decided to change as soon as the puck escaped the Rangers’ zone, and that allowed Miller to retrieve the puck just outside the blue line with no pressure on him. Miller skated toward the middle, entered the zone and passed to the open Girgensons, who cut to the middle and tucked the puck around Georgiev.
Georgiev made several very good saves in the second period but couldn’t stop Reinhart after Ryan Lindgren turned the puck over in the offensive zone to former Ranger Vesey. Vesey passed ahead to Jack Eichel and Eichel passed to Reinhart, who went in on a partial breakaway and put a pretty backhander over Georgiev’s left shoulder at 15:16 for his 20th goal.