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Rangers fail to clinch with loss to Senators

by Tal Pinchevsky

NEW YORK -- Jason Spezza scored the winning goal in the second period, Robin Lehner made 41 saves and the Ottawa Senators held on to defeat the New York Rangers 3-2 at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night.

Mats Zuccarello scored twice for the Rangers (43-31-5); Henrik Lundqvist made 31 saves. Mark Stone and Mika Zibanejad scored in the first period for Ottawa (33-31-14).

At home against the Montreal Canadiens on Friday, the Senators raced out to a 3-0 lead before allowing seven unanswered goals in a 7-4 loss that hurt their chances of qualifying for the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs. One night later, they were determined not to allow another dispiriting comeback.

"I thought this was a good response from the group. Robin played really well," Spezza said. "That was a difficult one for us last night, to lose the way we did. We know it's been a disappointing year and we know we haven't reached expectations but we still have these games left to play so we want to win them."

The win kept Ottawa's faint playoff hopes alive while spoiling New York's attempt to clinch a postseason berth.

Ottawa now has 80 points and sits five points behind the Columbus Blue Jackets for the Eastern Conference's second wild-card spot with four games to play; Columbus holds one game in hand. The Rangers sit second in the Metropolitan Division and could have clinched a playoff berth with a point. They can still clinch if they collect one point in their three remaining games or if the New Jersey Devils lose any of the four games left on their schedule.

"It's obviously very disappointing [not clinching]," Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi said. "We are still in a good spot here. It's in our hands to get that win in our next game at home and hopefully secure home ice in the first round."

Down 2-0 after 20 minutes, Zuccarello brought some much-needed energy back into the building when he beat Lehner 5:25 into the second to cut the Ottawa lead to 2-1. After taking a long pass at the point, John Moore backpedaled toward the center of the ice and fired a slap shot that was first tipped by Benoit Pouliot and then by Zuccarello past Lehner for his 18th of the season.

Any momentum generated by Zuccarello's first goal of the night was short-lived. Spezza gave Ottawa another two-goal lead after finding a loose puck in the crease following a hard point shot from Erik Karlsson. Diving for the rebound, Spezza earned his 20th at 8:27 to give the Senators a 3-1 lead.

"I had 10 chances and I score that one. That's the hockey gods rewarding you," Spezza said. "I haven't had much puck luck around the net. A bit of a reward, I guess."

But Zuccarello wasn't done creating havoc in Ottawa's crease. His 19th goal of the season came off another deflection of a long shot from the left point, this one by Staal. The goal at 11:55 was Zuccarello's seventh point in the past four games and cut the Senators' advantage to 3-2.

New York's best chance to pull even in the third may have come when Eric Gryba was called for slashing with 8:43 left in the period. The Rangers enjoyed strong puck possession on the man advantage, but only mustered one shot.

The Rangers' rally effectively ended with 2:47 left in regulation when a slew of penalties involving five players left New York down a man after Staal was assessed an extra minor for roughing. Earning the start after sitting in Ottawa's previous three games, Lehner made the stops when he needed to and credited his defense for keeping New York's attack to the perimeter, especially in the third period.

"I think they were really helping me with rebounds, I saw most pucks," Lehner said. "They had some good chances but I think we played better today."

Ottawa found its stride in the first after a slow start that saw the teams combine for three shots in the opening 5:30. Stone broke the deadlock by finishing an impressive give-and-go at 12:45.

The play started when Chris Philips fed Clarke MacArthur across the blue line entering the New York zone. Zuccarello missed on an attempt to break up the pass, leaving MacArthur with open ice as he streaked down the left wing. The Ottawa wing then found Stone near the slot, where he beat Lundqvist low to the glove side for his third of the season to give the Senators a 1-0 lead.

The action ramped up from there with quality chances at each end. Bryan Boyle was stopped by Lehner after being sprung down the left wing by a long pass off the boards from Girardi at 16:22. Lundqvist stopped Jean-Gabriel Pageau off the rush 15 seconds later and Rick Nash couldn't beat Lehner on a breakaway with 2:49 remaining in the first.

"If we score early, I think it's a different game," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. "We had as many chances as they had in the first period. They scored and we didn't. Then we were trying to fight our way back. Energy-wise it was a challenge for us. We tried hard but we just couldn't get it done."

Lehner had a hand in that, making a number of big stops on high-percentage opportunities. After struggling with rebound control early, he appeared to settle down as the game progressed.

"It's nice. I like a lot of shots," Lehner said. "I think we did a good job."

Zibanejad gave the Senators a 2-0 lead 12 seconds after Nash's breakaway. The forward took the puck from Zack Smith directly off a faceoff, skated toward the slot and beat Lundqvist glove side for his 16th with 2:37 left. The goal highlighted a wild final 5:13 of the first in which the teams combined for 10 shots.

After playing spoiler Saturday, the Senators can still make a last-gasp run toward the postseason. Their chances of qualifying may be slim, but they're hoping to make the most of their final four games.

"[Friday] was a tough one for us. It's been a little bit too much of that this year. The way we played today, I think that's the kind of team we are and that's the kind of team we need to be to be successful," Karlsson said." Even though it's a long shot [to make the playoffs], we still have to make sure we do it right. It's not the end of the world yet."

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