After a 5-0 start and a 10-2-1 October, the New York Rangers never imagined they'd be in danger of missing the playoffs.
Lately, though, they have been slipping much closer to that possibility.
The reeling Rangers hope a matchup with the last-place New York Islanders will help them snap out of their second-half slump, and they'll try to avoid a ninth loss in 10 games Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden.
While the Rangers offense was never among the league's best this season, the sputtering unit has been the primary culprit for the team's recent struggles, as it has scored two or fewer goals in eight of its last nine games. The Rangers are 1-6-2 over that span, and now they rank last in the league with 2.33 goals per game.
The power play has been especially dismal for coach Tom Renney's club, converting once in 34 chances in 10 games since the All-Star break. The unit ranks 28th in the league for the season at 13.5 percent.
The Rangers (30-22-6) were 0-for-3 with the man advantage in Monday night's 2-1 loss at St. Louis, but Renney saw some reason for optimism despite the team's third straight defeat.
"We got four power-play shots, which might not sound like a lot," Renney said. "But for us, that's an accomplishment. We had traffic, the shots were intelligent shots, so what we're doing right now is trying to rebuild our foundation if you will."
Still, the Rangers were outshot 27-13 over the final two periods, and goalie Henrik Lundqvist allowed the game-winner with 5:14 to play.
Lundqvist rebounded one day after allowing four goals on 14 shots and getting pulled from a 5-2 loss to Philadelphia, but he said he still notices the confidence problems his teammates are having.
"You see when they score a goal, we totally lose our composure and start running around," Lundqvist said. "It takes a lot for us to bounce back from a goal because everybody gets so tight."
Although they remain tied for fifth place in the Eastern Conference, several teams are in close pursuit, and the Rangers need victories soon to avoid falling out of playoff position altogether. They have the worst goal differential among teams currently in playoff position in either conference, having given up 23 more goals than they've scored.
The NHL-worst Islanders (17-33-6) have long been out of the postseason discussion, but they ended a five-game losing streak with Monday's 3-2 shootout win over Pittsburgh.
Joey MacDonald made 35 saves for the Islanders, then stopped star forwards Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby consecutively in the shootout to secure the win.
MacDonald has a 2.62 goals-against average in three games since returning from a groin injury.
"He's been great all year," Islanders defenseman Chris Campoli told his team's official Web site. "He's always giving us a chance to win almost every night. He's a big reason why we won."
The Islanders have dropped three of four against their local rivals this season, but MacDonald made 35 saves in a 2-1 win at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 4. Despite a 5-4 loss there on Dec. 29, the Isles are 8-2-1 in their last 11 trips to Manhattan.