The New York Rangers didn’t even need a win to lock up a playoff spot. All they needed was just one measly point to secure their entry to the postseason race. And they had the chance to nail that down at home with a game against the floundering Ottawa Senators on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden.
But a lackluster first-period performance, one that elicited a round of boos from the Garden faithful, cost them that point as they fell 3-2 to a feisty Sens squad seeking to atone an embarrassing implosion against the Montreal Canadiens just one night prior.
Instead of dictating the pace and taking their game to the Sens, the Rangers got behind an Ottawa team whose playoff hopes are all but mathematically extinguished. The result?
They left the ice after the first period trailing 2-0.
“It felt like they were a little bit more on top of things in the first period. We came back strong in the second and third, but the first period cost us,” goaltender Henrik Lundqvist said.
Both Ottawa’s goals exposed some of the team’s defensive shortcomings in their second game without top blueliner Ryan McDonagh, but the Rangers were not without opportunities on the other end.
Benoit Pouliot was denied of two glorious point-blank chances by Sens goaltender Robin Lehner. Lehner stuffed Carl Hagelin at the right post later in the period to hold the Blueshirts scoreless through the first 20 minutes of play.
"We had some chances and, if we score early, I think it’s a different game,” said coach Alain Vigneault. "I wasn’t crazy about trading chances against a team like that.”
The Rangers recovered from their poor start -- Mats Zuccarello tallied twice to pull the Rangers within a goal -- but they couldn’t finish the job to wrap up a playoff guarantee.
“It’s very frustrating. I think the first period hurt us,” said veteran center and alternate captain Brad Richards. “We made a push, but [we] spotted them too early.”
The Rangers have three games remaining in the regular-season schedule and another pair at home before heading up to Montreal for the season finale. Earning a playoff spot is the next feat to accomplish, but the Rangers have their sights set beyond that as well.
The team currently resides in second place in the Metropolitan Division standings, four points ahead of the Philadelphia Flyers though the Flyers have two games in hand. The two rival squads will be battling down the stretch to gain home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
“I hope our mindset is not to clinch,” Lundqvist said. “It’s about getting the home advantage. That’s my mindset going into this. I’d rather look ahead than behind me, but we’ll take the next game and focus on that. Every game now is going to be tough. We are playing teams that are out of it, so we have to respect that.”