With a chance to clinch a berth in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs Saturday night, the Rangers returned home from a four-game road trip out west with a 3-2 loss to the Ottawa Senators at Madison Square Garden. Despite the defeat New York's magic number to clinch a post-season berth is still one point, and the Blueshirts also remain four points ahead of the Philadelphia Flyers for second place in the Metropolitan Division heading into the final week of the regular season.
"We are a little disappointed, obviously," offered defenseman Anton Stralman, who logged 19:05 and was a +1 in the game. "These are two points we really wanted, but now we can't think too much about it. We have a few more games, and we've got to get those points in those games."
An intense and often physical game boiled over with 2:47 to play in regulation when Ottawa's Chris Neil--who has a long sordid history against the Blueshirts--delivered a hard, high, and seemingly late hit on Marc Staal, sending the Rangers alternate captain sprawled on the ice. Then Neil charged after Mats Zuccarello, who scored both of the Rangers' goals Saturday, starting a wild melee in which Staal chased Neil down and engaged in a wrestling match with the Ottawa tough guy. Neil dropped his gloves and began throwing punches at Staal's head while Staal kept his gloves on; yet Staal was assessed a double minor for roughing while Neil received only two minutes.
Several Ranger players were incensed after the game with the calls that were made on the play, and those that weren't. Having to kill a penalty that late in the contest effectively cut short any final push by the Rangers to forge a tie, though Derek Stepan had a neat deflection in the final seconds off a pass in front which was denied smoothly by Senators goalie Robin Lehner, who was extremely solid Saturday stopping 41 of 43 Ranger shots.
"Energy-wise it was a challenge for us, but our guys tried hard, but just couldn't get it done," said Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault. "Today our execution from defense to offense was average. We still managed to get quite a few shots on net. We had some real good looks, but only scored two times."
Henrik Lundqvist allowed two goals on the first nine shots he faced, but finished with 31 saves. Derick Brassard picked up an assist in his 400th NHL game, while Dominic Moore appeared in the 600th game of his NHL career.
The Rangers, who were 2-1-1 on their just completed road trip out west, will next skate against the Carolina Hurricanes Tuesday night at The Garden.
"It's obviously very disappointing," noted defenseman Dan Girardi, who played a team-high 26:11 while Ryan McDonagh missed his second straight game with a shoulder injury. "We're still in a good spot here. It's in our hands to win our next game at home and hopefully secure home ice in the first round."
Despite holding a 16-12 shots advantage through 20 minutes of play, the Rangers skated off the ice after the first period trailing Ottawa 2-0 on goals by Mark Stone and Mike Zibanejad, and due in large part to some sensation play by Lehner. However Zuccarello beat Lehner twice in the second period--sandwiching an Ottawa goal by Jason Spezza--and the Rangers trailed by just one after two periods of play.
Both of Zuccarello's goals came off deflections in front after the popular Norwegian had also won battles for the puck along the boards. His first goal came at 5:25 of the second period when he chased a loose puck into the left wing corner and quickly sent a pass back to the point. As Zuccarello skated to the low slot, John Moore cranked up a high slap which was first deflected by Benoit Pouliot and then tipped off Zuccarello's stick in front and past Lehner to cut the Blueshirts deficit to 2-1.
Three minutes later Spezza scored off a wild scramble in Lundqvist's crease and the Rangers again were chasing a pair of goals on the scoreboard; but Zuccarello scored at 11:55, this time deflecting Staal's slap shot into the cage for his 19th goal of the season. It was Zuccarello who whipped the puck around the boards from right wing to left, setting up an open Staal to hammer a shot towards the net, just as Zuccarello positioned himself again in front of Lehner.
"He was great, he played with a lot of emotion tonight," Stralman said of Zuccarello. "He finished checks, he was in the brawls a couple times, scored a couple goals. It's good to see when he's that intense out there. That's when he's at his best."
Lehner, who allowed seven goals to the Rangers in a 8-4 Blueshirt victory up in Ottawa on March 18th, bounced back and turned in a series of big-time saves on Saturday night. He denied both Rick Nash and Marty St. Louis on separate partial breakaways, made back-to-back huge stops on a Carl Hagelin wraparound and subsequent rebound attempt from in-tight in the first, and a gem robbing Pouliot from point-blank range just six minutes into the game. He frustrated Nash--who had a team-high seven shots on goal--time and again, including on a late chance in the third period from the slot.
Three games remain on the regular season schedule for the Blueshirts--Tuesday's tilt against the Hurricanes, a home contest Thursday against the Buffalo Sabres, and Saturday's season finale in Montreal.