NEW YORK – Every time it looks like the New York Rangers are about to turn the corner, they turn into a wall instead and wind up flat on their backs.
On Thursday night, that wall was the 30th-place Florida Panthers and 23-year-old rookie goaltender Jacob Markstrom.
Brian Campbell and Scottie Upshall staked the Panthers to a two-goal lead, and Markstrom made it hold with 44 saves as Florida squeezed out a 3-1 victory against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. The Rangers won back-to-back contests to start the week after losing three straight, but were unable to continue their winning ways against the NHL's last-place team.
For the fifth time in six games, the Rangers were held to one goal or fewer, and goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was clearly frustrated about it after the game.
"We did a lot of good things," said Lundqvist, who made 21 saves, "but it's getting old. We just have to put the puck in the net. That's how you win games."
It wasn't for a lack of trying that the Rangers' were held to one goal by Markstrom, who allowed Marian Gaborik's ninth goal of the season with 3:48 remaining that cut the lead to 2-1. The Rangers spent about half the game in the offensive zone and had 18 shots in the third period. They fired 77 shots toward goal – 44 hit the net, 24 were blocked and eight missed the net.
The abundance of chances was the result of the Panthers' willingness to clog the neutral zone and set up a five-man barricade around their net after taking a 2-0 lead with more than 35 minutes left in the game. Gaborik scored his goal on a breakaway, but most of the Rangers' chances were from the perimeter.
"We out-chanced them 2-to-1, but we're still not creating enough offense with that amount of time in the zone," Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "At the end of the game, we need to create more offense in that situation. That's where we're at. We need another big play at a key time and we're just not getting it consistent enough."
The Panthers took a lead they would not relinquish at 8:22 of the first period with Rangers defenseman Roman Hamrlik in the penalty box for high sticking. Campbell unleashed a slap shot from the top of the left circle that Lundqvist never saw, and it may not have mattered as the puck hit just under the crossbar in the top right corner of the net to make it 1-0.
For the rest of the period, the Rangers were the aggressors. But it was their passive start that left them in a 1-0 hole – the 19thhtime that has happened in 30 games this season – that left defenseman Dan Girardi shaking his head.
"Every other team seems to come out really hard and put us on our heels," Girardi said. "We have to find a way on the first shift and second shift, just throw everything we have at that them in the first couple of shifts and create some momentum that way."
When asked if the Rangers had a letdown because of the quality of the opponent, Lundqvist said that wasn't the case.
"You don't think about the standings when you play teams," Lundqvist said. "Everybody knows it's going to be a tough game. They play well. They come with a lot of speed. They're a good team even though they haven't won that much."
The Panthers will do a lot more winning down the stretch if Markstrom continues to play like the franchise goaltender they hope he will become. Among his best saves were two in the second period -- he denied Gaborik at his doorstep and stretched to get a piece of a Jeff Halpern shot that seemed labeled for an open net.
With more traffic in front of his net as third period progressed, Markstrom was able to use his 6-foot-6, 196-pound frame to see around bodies and control rebounds. He held the fort long enough to allow Tomas Kopecky to score a shorthanded empty-net goal from inside his blue line with 45.9 seconds remaining to ice it.
"Marky had a real solid game there tonight," Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. "He had some shots – you could say some were from the outside – but there were some quality in there too. Good goaltending leads to good overall play. I think we were happy with the result here tonight."
The loss dropped the Rangers into ninth place in the Eastern Conference with 32 points. The Carolina Hurricanes sit in eighth with 32 points but have three more non-shootout wins, and the sixth-place Toronto Maple Leafs and seventh-place New Jersey Devils have 34 points.
Following a stretch of good play with a loss against a team outside of the playoff picture is becoming a trend for the Rangers. In early February, they won three straight and four of five before losing 4-3 in a shootout to the New York Islanders, a team they beat 4-1 a week earlier. The Rangers won four of five to start March, then lost 3-1 at Buffalo and delivered such a poor performance that Tortorella shredded his team about its effort afterward.
The loss Thursday to the Panthers came after beating the Hurricanes at home and Devils on the road on consecutive days.
"We had such a big game in New Jersey and battled through that to get a win," Girardi said of their 3-2 victory on Tuesday, "and to come home against the Panthers, we could have had this game if we played our game and played hard."
The Rangers will host the Washington Capitals on Sunday, leaving them two days to lament their effort and perhaps work on their special teams, something Lundqvist said needs to improve if the Rangers want to make the playoffs. They are 0-for-12 on the power play in their past six games and have allowed a power-play goal in four of their past five contests.
Winning the specials teams battle, says Lundqvist, is a must if the team isn't going to put the puck in the net.
"What's frustrating is you look at the game and we have enough chances to tie it up earlier, but we're not doing it," Lundqvist said. "The special-teams game is going to be critical down the stretch here. So the PK, and it starts with me, is almost going to have to be 100 percent here, because we're in the position where we don't have the luxury of a lot of goals."