The calendar flipped to March, the playoff push intensified, and the Rangers were in Philadelphia Saturday afternoon facing the team right behind them in the Metropolitan Division standings; and at the end of the day the Flyers trailed New York by just one point with 21 games to play after handing the Rangers a 4-2 defeat at the Wells Fargo Center.
It was a game played on even terms much of the afternoon, and with much intensity on both sides, complete with a series of big hits and post-whistle scrums. It was also a contest full of missed chances for the Rangers, who had a series of them in both the second and third periods before the Flyers finally iced the game on a Luke Schenn goal off a rebound with 3:45 remaining in regulation which staked the home team to a two-goal lead.
Henrik Lundqvist made his first start in goal for the Rangers since securing an Olympic silver medal in Sochi with Team Sweden and surrendered four goals on 31 shots. He had his personal winning streak snapped at five games.
"I thought overall we played a really good game, created a lot of chances and we had a couple really good chances to tie the game when it was 3-2," Lundqvist said afterwards. "It's disappointing, obviously, but we did a lot of good things."
At the other end of the ice Philly's Steve Mason finished strong with 33 saves. Five of those stops came within the first few minutes of the game when the Flyers' Scott Hartnell took back-to-back penalties which his teammates killed off at 1:57 and 4:05 of the first period. Mason also made a game-saving stop on a wide-open Derek Stepan put-back midway through the third period with New York trailing by just one.
"It was a hard-fought game and they were able to capitalize on a few more of their chances than we were," summed up Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault after the game.
Despite outshooting the Flyers 12-10 in the opening period, the Rangers found themselves in a 2-0 hole--due in large part to failing to convert on that pair of early power play opportunities when the game was still scoreless. However the Rangers played a much stronger second period and were able to pull even, 2-2, before a Wayne Simmonds power play tally put the visitors at a 3-2 deficit heading into the second intermission.
Trailing 2-0 in the second, the Rangers thought they had gotten one back just 2:01 into the period when Benoit Pouliot deflected a Dan Girardi shot past Mason. However after video review it was ruled Pouliot deflected the puck with a high stick and the goal came off the scoreboard.
Less than three minutes later the Rangers scored a goal that could not be wiped off the 'board. Chris Kreider skated hard to the net and redirected a sweet centering feed from Rick Nash into the back of the cage at 4:59, cutting the visitors' deficit in half. Stepan started the scoring play with a crisp pass to Nash, who flew into the offensive zone on right wing with his head up. He then made a perfect pass to Kreider who scored his first goal in nine games, and 14th on the season.
Kreider is now tied for fifth among all NHL rookies in goals scored, and his 31 points rank sixth among first year players. He very nearly had another goal five minutes later after another gorgeous pass from Nash, but after pulling Mason way out of his net, Kreider sailed his backhand shot wide of the gaping cage.
The Rangers did tie the game, 2-2, at 11:42 of the second period when Derick Brassard hammered a power play slap shot off Mason's pad and over the goal line. The goal--his 13th of the season--extended Brassard's point-scoring streak to eight consecutive games. Brad Richards and Lundqvist picked up assists on the power play goal.
Simmonds, though, returned the favor scoring a power play goal from the left circle at 13:23 to give Philly the lead yet again. Simmonds' goal--his 19th--was a bitter pill for the Rangers since they had largely controlled play in the period, and they were well aware how potent the Flyers power play has been.
J.T. Miller very nearly tied the score before the period was over, but he shoveled his wide-open rebound attempt wide of the net with one minute to play.
"I thought after the first period we got the battle level up and started to match their intensity," explained Girardi, who played a shade under 25 minutes, blocked a game-high six shots, and led the Rangers with five hits.
The Flyers had raced to a 2-0 lead in the first eight minutes ten seconds of the game on goals credited to Vincent Lecavalier and Sean Couturier. Lecavalier's goal came off a deflection in front that actually was accidentally pushed over the goal line by Rangers defenseman Anton Stralman, who was battling Brayden Schenn at the side of the net. Couturier scored off a semi breakaway after getting behind Kreider, who was covering for Girardi.
Derek Dorsett returned to the lineup for the Rangers on Saturday, playing for the first time since suffering a fractured fibula on January 3rd--a span of 18 games missed. He was the guilty party sitting in the box when Simmonds scored his power play goal in the second period, and was on ice for Lecavalier's goal, but was also credited with four hits in 8:42 worth of ice time.
"He tried real hard, and obviously he's trying right now to get his legs back and trying to skate the way he was prior to the injury," Vigneault said of Dorsett. "He blocked a big shot out there one time, so he's going to do what he can to help us win games."
Dorsett's linemate on the fourth line, Daniel Carcillo, played a strong game against his former team Saturday. While his teammates seemed to struggle finding their collective game in the first, Carcillo was extremely effective on the forecheck and in irritating the Flyers at every turn. Carcillo had two shots on goal and two hits in the first period, and then in the second totaled 12 minutes in penalties for a pair of altercations with Philly's Zac Rinaldo. Carcillo finished with three shots on goal--tied for second most on the team--in just 7:32 worth of ice time.
The Rangers are right back at it Sunday night when they host the Boston Bruins at Madison Square Garden, their third game in four days since returning to action following the Olympic break.
"We don't have any time to dwell on this one, we've got Boston coming into our building tomorrow night so we've got to get ready," said Vigneault.