When it was over, the Rangers were searching for answers.
It is not the way a team wants to begin its playoff push.
“We kind of came out a little flat,” Derek Stepan said after the Rangers dropped a sloppy 6-4 decision to the Islanders at the Garden Sunday night. The Rangers—who will spend this week in Buffalo and Detroit before returning home Sunday for the Penguins—are 38-22-6, but lead the Islanders by three points for second place in the Metropolitan Division. The Islanders have three games in hand.
“You have to be ready to play every single night,” Stepan said.
By any applicable measure, they weren’t against the Islanders.
Ten minutes into the third of four regular season meetings between the rivals, the Islanders lead 3-0 in goals and 10-0 in shots. The Islanders’ start prompted Jack Capuano to say his team “dominated the first period.”
Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault wouldn’t disagree.
“We should give them a lot of credit. They came out real strong (and) on the counter side of that, we didn’t come out the way we needed to,” Vigneault said. “We had one line going tonight.You could tell they were trying but they didn’t seem to have much in the tank and didn’t generate a lot, other than [Eric] Staal’s line, 5-on-5.”
Indeed, Staal, whom the Rangers acquired from Carolina in a trade on Feb. 28, finished with a goal and an assist for two points in 19:07. Staal, who centered a line with Kevin Hayes and Oscar Lindberg, had seven shot attempts, threw a hit, had a takeaway and won 20 of 22 face-offs.
“Every game, every shift, I have been feeling more comfortable,” said Staal. “I am starting to get to know the guys out there—whether its defensemen or my linemates—and tendencies. I thought we as a line were skating really well. We were on the forecheck (and forced the Islanders into) turning pucks over and it created some offensive chances. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get the first goal (as a Ranger in) a win but I will take it and we’ll try to rebound.”
While the Staal line was stalwart, the trio of Derick Brassard, Mats Zuccarello and J.T. Miller was ghastly. By the end of the game, Vigneault dropped Miller to the fourth line.
It mattered little.
Even though Brassard finished with a power play goal and a point, he was minus-2 and had four giveaways. Zuccarello was minus-3 in 19:58. Miller was -2 in 6:35 of ice time.
“He and his linemates can do better,” Vigneault said of Brassard. “Should do better. We need them to be better. We will analyze this game and make the adjustments we need.”
Still, the question about the 2015-16 edition of the Rangers will be about their defensive approach. Against the Islanders, the Rangers yielded 32 shots on goal and attempted 60 shots.
Without Henrik Lundqvist, who was recuperating from neck spasms from a collision with Ryan McDonagh in last week’s 4-1 loss to the Penguins in Pittsburgh, backup goaltender Antti Raanta was victimized by his teammates breakdowns in the neutral and defensive zones.
“[The] first period was the weirdest period in my hockey life,” said Raanta, who allowed five goals on 31 shots, before Frans Nielsen added an empty netter. “Suddenly five minutes off the clock and the game is 3-0. You try to think about what went wrong and what did you do in those goals, but you just try to forget about that and keep yourself going. We got (quick goals) and then they get their fourth one (of the first period) and I was like, ‘there’s still six minutes on the clock and this can’t be real.’
“It felt like the coldest nightmare, that kind of period where pretty much everything that goes to the net goes in.”
You can follow NHL writer Denis P. Gorman on Twitter at @DenisGorman.