DETROIT — As warm-ups go, this was not exactly a classic for the Rangers. Still, it was a point. In their final game of the calendar year and their last go-round before heading to The Great Outdoors and the larger-than-life Winter Classic on Monday afternoon, they could not generate enough heat when it counted Friday night.
They failed to build on or hold a pair of one-goal leads and did not capitalize on a penalty shot in overtime. Ultimately, they lost to the Red Wings, 3-2, in a shootout at new Little Caesars Arena. Then again, in the thicket of the Metropolitan Division race, a point is a point.
In the two games between the Christmas break and the New Year’s Day game at Citi Field, they’ve had two shootouts — one victory, one loss. “I think we’ve played some pretty good hockey these two games,” Alain Vigneault said after Frans Nielsen became the only player to score in the shootout.
As the Rangers’ Ryan McDonagh put it, “There are two teams that have a lot of speed and skill and check pretty well. They had [their] fair share of looks, we had our fair share of looks. They had some power plays, we had some power plays. You wish you could have capitalized on more opportunities, but they can say the same thing at their end.”
The game surely never will be forgotten by Vinni Lettieri, called up Thursday after it was learned that Chris Kreider has a blood clot and will be out indefinitely. Lettieri made his NHL debut and — in front of his family (including granddad Lou Nanne, a U.S. Hockey Hall of Famer) — scored his first NHL goal. It occurred at 2:35 of the third period and gave the Rangers a 2-1 edge.
“After the first couple of shifts, I just tried to calm myself down,” Lettieri said. “It’s easy to play with Boo [Nieves] and Paul Carey; they’re great players out there. They made it easy for me tonight. It was really fun, but unfortunately, we wanted to get the win.”
That specter was wiped out by Henrik Zetterberg’s unassisted goal at 7:05 of the third. Zetterberg is at the other end of the career spectrum from Lettieri, having been in 1,037 games and scored 332 times. But this was that kind of back-and-forth, give-and-take game. David Desharnais put the Rangers ahead in the first, Andreas Athanasiou tied it in the second.
Each side withstood late drama. The Rangers committed two penalties in the final four minutes of regulation and killed both of them. Brady Skjei was awarded a penalty shot 2:22 into overtime and was stopped by Jimmy Howard.
In the final phase, everyone was stopped except Nielsen, Mr. Shootout (the former Islander is the all-time leader with 47 goals in 94 tries).
“You try to be patient and wait for their move,” said Henrik Lundqvist, who was beaten in the five-hole. “Some nights you’ve got to be able to stop three-for-three and keep it going. I wasn’t able to do that.”
Still, the Rangers can look forward to the Winter Classic, seen as a prize by NHL players.
“It’s a great experience, no question about it,” said Lundqvist, who stopped a penalty shot to secure the 2012 Winter Classic and played in other outdoor victories at Yankee Stadium. “It’s going to be a great weekend. We’re all looking forward to that. It’s an important game for us. We need points right now.”