WINNIPEG, Manitoba — It’s becoming evident that the Rangers long for Madison Square Garden. The Blueshirts dropped their seventh straight road game Friday night, falling to a Winnipeg Jets team that is having trouble keeping the puck out of its own net this season.
The Rangers’ 5-2 loss completed their pre-holiday-break road schedule. The luster of their strong start to the season is but a memory as they fell to 3-8-2 in their last 13. The Blueshirts haven’t won on the road since Nov. 21.
“The last few games here, we’ve gotten behind early, which when you’re behind, you have to open things up. It makes it a lot more difficult,” coach Alain Vigneault said. “Tonight, I thought we battled hard but we got behind on a very good team.”
Dan Boyle’s power-play goal brought the Rangers within 3-2 with 14:12 left in the second period. But Tyler Myers scored with 3:46 left in the second and Jets captain Andrew Ladd added an empty-netter with 1:01 remaining in the third.
Winnipeg winger Blake Wheeler set up four of the Jets’ five goals, including both of Bryan Little’s goals in the opening 7:34 of the first period.
The Rangers began sluggishly against a Jets club that had dropped three of its previous four, is without No. 1 goaltender Ondrej Pavelec because of a knee injury and is forced to ride rookie netminder Connor Hellebuyck, all while accumulating the second-most penalty minutes in the NHL and owning the 27th-ranked penalty kill.
After recording his 11th goal of the season five minutes into the game by patiently outwaiting a sprawling Henrik Lundqvist before lifting it over him, Little found his 12th just 2:31 later, again waiting patiently for a smooth redirect of a long pass from Wheeler.
“At times I feel really good about my game, especially the last 40 minutes. But giving up three in the first, it’s going to be a long night,” said Lundqvist, who stopped 31 of the 35 shots he faced. “We need everyone to step up, and I need to make that extra save. It’s just been a lot of chances right in front.”
J.T. Miller cut Winnipeg’s lead to 2-1 with 5:59 left in the opening frame, but the Jets restored their two-goal lead late in the period. Mark Scheifele beat Derek Stepan off the draw and dropped it back to Dustin Byfuglien, who let an elevating slapper go from the point and beat Lundqvist stick side.
“I haven’t been able to practice faceoffs and [I’m] not really getting any game reps,” Stepan said after his first game action since Nov. 21, when he suffered broken ribs. “It doesn’t matter why or what’s going on — we’re not playing great hockey and we just need to essentially build our confidence back up. Start from scratch.”
Said Vigneault, “Right now we have a few guys . . . A lot of our top players are having a hard time with their game. It’s my job as the head coach to help them find their game. It’s as simple as that.”
How would he try to prevent his players from over-thinking things? “Any time you go through a phase like we’re going through, those are normal questions players would ask themselves — players that care and want to do well and want to succeed. And there is also no doubt in my mind that this group wants to do that,” Vigneault said. “But there’s also no doubt in my mind that a lot of our top players are fighting it, without naming anybody. But at the end of the day, I’m the head coach. It’s my job to get them to play to their level. To play a smart game.”