There still are 35 games left in the season, plenty of time to recover from this one. But if the Rangers end up falling just short of a playoff berth this spring, they likely will look back to Sunday’s crushing 2-1 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets at the Garden as a pivotal moment.
Oliver Bjorkstrand, who was activated off injured reserve earlier in the day after missing 13 games with an oblique injury, scored his second goal of the third period with 26.5 seconds left to deal the Rangers a devastating blow.
“It sucks,’’ said Rangers forward Brendan Lemieux, who also came off injured reserve to play in the game. “It’s the worst way to lose a game. We get nothing out of it. It’s a massive game for us. You’ve got to play all 60 [minutes]. We played . . . 59 and a half.’’
The Rangers were caught in a line change on the winning goal. When Ryan Strome turned and headed to the bench, Columbus defenseman Seth Jones took advantage of the space vacated by Strome to fire a pass to Pierre-Luc Dubois, who skated unchecked up the middle of the ice on what turned into a three-on-two break. Dubois passed to Bjorkstrand, on his right, and Bjorkstrand cut to the middle and fired a snap shot over the glove of Igor Shesterkin for the tiebreaking goal.
“To give up a three-on-two with 28 seconds to go is just inexcusable,’’ Rangers coach David Quinn said. “A really bad change . . . Just disappointing.’’
If the Rangers had managed to get to overtime, they would have earned at least a point, which would have been some consolation. Instead, their record fell to 23-20-4 (50 points). That left them 10 points behind the Blue Jackets (26-16-8, 60), who leapfrogged the Carolina Hurricanes and took over the first wild-card playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Carolina (59 points), which beat the Islanders in a shootout on Sunday, sits in the second wild-card spot.
After playing the Islanders in the previous two games — and with another game against the Isles on Tuesday before the All-Star break — the Rangers had a chance to focus on themselves without having to take into account any kind of rivalry that can get in the way. But maybe they missed that extra passion that always is in the building for Islanders games.
“I just didn’t think we had a lot of energy for the third period,’’ Quinn said. “I thought our second period was OK, I didn’t love our first. We pretty much got what we deserved, I thought, when the night ended.’’
Shesterkin, playing his first game in 10 days, made 29 saves against a Blue Jackets team that had beaten the Devils, 5-0, on Saturday. He was hard on himself afterward.
“The team played well. I could have played better,’’ Shesterkin said through an interpreter. “We should have won today.’’
Brady Skjei’s goal at 18:23 of the first period, scored right after he served a minor penalty for high-sticking, opened the scoring.
After Skjei stepped out of the box, his regular defense partner, Jacob Trouba, spotted him at the red line and fired a pass that Skjei couldn’t catch. The puck went all the way off the back boards and Skjei corralled it in the lower left circle, settled it and lifted a shot over goalie Matiss Kivlenieks. The 23-year-old from Riga, Latvia, made 31 saves in his NHL debut.
In the third period, Jesper Fast’s turnover in the offensive zone allowed Dubois to retrieve the puck and skate it into the Rangers’ zone. Dubois lost it, but Bjorkstrand picked it up above the left circle and snapped a quick shot just over Shesterkin’s glove hand to tie it at 6:08.