Perhaps the touching pregame ceremony for beloved New York police detective Steven McDonald took something out of the Rangers. Or did the five-day “bye” week dull their senses?
Perhaps there aren’t any legitimate excuses for Friday night’s 4-2 loss to the Maple Leafs, which included another sluggish start, little spark on the power play (0-for-6) and two soft early goals allowed by Henrik Lundqvist that put the Blueshirts in a hole after 20 minutes at Madison Square Garden.
After the ceremony, “I think we got a little ahead of ourselves,’’ Ryan McDonagh said. “We wanted to get going on the offensive side and we didn’t stabilize the puck when we probably should have, to get a feel for the game and get a feel for our legs. It cost us.’’
After two quality saves that had the crowd chanting “Hen-reek,” rookie William Nylander — whom Lundqvist had recalled playing floor hockey with when his dad, Michael, was a teammate from 2005 to 2007 — gave the Leafs a 1-0 lead 4:49 into the first period, finding the five-hole from the right circle.
The Rangers’ man-advantage failed twice in the period, with Brandon Pirri short-circuiting the second one with a hooking penalty halfway through. That created a short power play for the Leafs, and another youngster, Mitch Marner, slid a pass under Dan Girardi’s stick in front to James Van Riemsdyk for his 15th of the season at 17:28.
A third Blueshirts power play, which came 52 seconds into the second period when Morgan Rielly pulled down Mats Zuccarello, went by the boards as a line of Leafs stood up any attacking Rangers at the blueline and cleared Frederik Andersen’s rebounds.
Said Derek Stepan, who hit the post on one power play: “They’re No. 1 [on the penalty kill] on the road for a good reason. They have a good four-man unit. Again, it comes down to execution.”
Chris Kreider pulled the Rangers to 2-1 at 9:05 of the second period with his 17th goal. He was knocked down in front, got up and banged in the rebound of McDonagh’s close-in shot off the pads of Andersen (34 saves).
But a little more than five minutes later, Connor Brown’s long wrister from the left side tipped off McDonagh’s stick as he was skating past the net and zipped by a frustrated Lundqvist, who stayed down on one knee for several seconds after the two-goal lead was restored.
“The big killer was the third goal,” said Lundqvist, who made 23 saves. “I felt like we turned it around a little bit, we score and then we had a bad bounce. I think the energy level went a bit down after that. I need to find a way to be a little bit better. We were minus-two on special teams and that was the difference. It starts with me on the PK. We were shooting a lot, but I felt they had more chances, the big chances.”
In the third period, coach Alain Vigneault shuffled his lines, as forward Rick Nash, in his first game back after missing eight with a groin injury, replaced J.T. Miller on the second line. But that move didn’t work. Until late, neither did the return of Pavel Buchnevich, who hadn’t played since Nov. 12 because of back issues.
Kevin Klein went to the box at 13:08 and Connor Carrick scored 12 seconds later after the Rangers lost another faceoff. By the end of the second period, the Leafs had won 68 percent of the draws.
Late in the third, the Rangers came up empty on their sixth power play, which dearly misses injured center Mika Zibanejad and his one-timer from the right circle. Meanwhile, the Leafs, who are vying for a playoff spot with six rookies in the lineup, were 2-for-4.
Miller scored at even strength with 1:25 left on a give-and-go with Buchnevich, but it was far too little and far too late.
Said Lundqvist, “There were a lot of emotions for a lot of guys watching [the ceremony], but when the game starts, you can’t have any excuses for not being ready.”
About an hour later, the Rangers were headed to Montreal, never an easy place to visit, for Saturday night’s game against the Canadiens, who lead the Atlantic Division. There will be no ceremonies, no long layoff, no excuses.