You know the Stanley Cup playoffs are right around the corner when you can get even closer to them despite losing.
That's what happened to the Rangers Thursday night in Ottawa, as the Blueshirts fell to the Senators 4-1 but saw their "magic number" for a playoff berth reduced to just three points, courtesy of Tampa Bay's 4-3 win over the Atlanta Thrashers.
After playing 12 games in the past 20 days, the first-place Rangers will have four well-deserved nights off before facing Philadelphia in an Atlantic Division showdown Tuesday at Madison Square Garden. It is possible for the Blueshirts to officially clinch a playoff spot even before that game starts, because Atlanta must win Saturday at home against Carolina and then beat the powerful Senators on the road Monday to keep any heat on the Rangers.
If the Thrashers come up short in their next two games against the top two Eastern Conference teams, they would become the seventh Eastern Conference team guaranteed to finish behind the Rangers. That would enable the Blueshirts to end a nine-year playoff drought, no matter what happens in their remaining eight regular-season games.
NHL scoring leader Jaromir Jagr assisted on the Rangers' lone goal to extend his point-scoring streak, but went a second straight game without scoring a goal. Still tied with Adam Graves for the Rangers' single-season goals record, Jagr will have his next chance to pass Graves in front of the MSG fans on Tuesday.
On Thursday night in Ottawa, the Rangers didn't have the spark they showed in crushing the Islanders one night earlier. With fatigue setting in from a run of five games in the seven nights, the Blueshirts took numerous penalties just to slow down the Sens. Those penalties ended up being the difference in the game, as Ottawa scored its first three goals on the power play, including two first-period goals from 5-on-3 advantages.
Chris Neil, Patrick Eaves, Dany Heatley and Peter Schaefer tallied for the Senators, whose power-play ranks third in the NHL. Ottawa was 3-for-8 with the man-advantage, and also showed their shorthanded prowess by killing off all six Rangers power-play opportunities.
Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist
finished the night with 28 saves, including 16 in the first period, to keep the high-flying Senators on the radar screen for most of the game. Sens goaltender Ray Emery also came up big with 24 saves for his 12th win in March -- tying the NHL record for victories by a goaltender in one calendar month.
The Rangers were called for six minor penalties in the first period, four more in the second and just one in the third, when they played perhaps their best hockey in outshooting the Sens 8-7. Schaefer notched the final period's lone goal at even strength, banging the rebound of defenseman Christoph Schubert's shot poff the faceoff past Lundqvist at 12:50.
Heatley had made it 3-1 with the lone second-period goal on a power play, restoring the two-goal lead Ottawa had until the Rangers' Fedor Tyutin cut it to 2-1 late in the first.
Heatley's goal, which seemed to swing the momentum permanently in Ottawa's favor, came just nine seconds after Rangers defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh pulled down Daniel Alfredsson to prevent the Senators star from going in alone on a breakaway. Shortly after the ensuing faceoff, defenseman Brian Pothier fed the puck to Heatley, who drove home a 59-foot slap shot for the 3-1 lead.
The Rangers found themselves in an early hole, thanks to a first-period penalty parade. The Sens were able to capitalize on two 5-on-3 power play opportunities to take a 2-1 lead into the first intermission.
Ottawa jumped out to a 2-0 edge before Tyutin, well-rested after sitting out Wednesday night's game against the Islanders, scored on a backhander from the slot at 14:15 to get the Blueshirts on the board.
Tyutin took a pass from Jagr in the high slot and moved in for a 26-foot backhander that sailed past Emery into the top right corner of the net. Michael Nylander also assisted on the goal, as Nylander ran his points streak to 10 games and Jagr extended his to 11. Jagr had a 12-game streak earlier this season.
With his assist, Jagr also broke Rod Gilbert's Rangers record for assists in one season by a right wing. Jagr now has 52 goals and 62 assists on the season, as he added another team record just one night after passing Jean Ratelle as the Blueshirts' all-time single season scoring leader.
Prior to the Tyutin goal, the Rangers had been caught in a flurry of penalties that led to the 2-0 deficit.
The first 5-on-3 developed after Michal Rozsival went off for high-sticking at 3:38 and the Rangers found themselves under heavy pressure. Tyutin was called for high-sticking Chris Neil at 5:10, opening up a 24-second two-man advantage for the Sens.
Ottawa didn't need much time to capitalize. Soon after play resumed, Alfredsson passed the puck down to Bryan Smolinski, positioned to Lundqvist's right. Smolinski took a shot from a bad angle at Lundqvist, who made the stop, but gave up a rebound. Neil alertly scooped up the loose puck and slid it around Lundqvist for a 1-0 lead at 5:26 of the first period.
The Rangers got their own power play chance less than two minutes later, when Eaves was sent off for cross-checking Marek Malik. Contained by Ottawa's penalty killers, the Blueshirts could not get a shot on goal, and by the period's midpoint they were on their heels again, when Petr Sykora was called for hooking and Mich Rozsival followed him to the box 34 seconds later on another hooking penalty at 12:07.
Down two men, the Rangers took yet another penalty at the 12:33 mark, when Tom Poti was whistled for roughing. That extended the two-man advantage for another minute, and Ottawa managed to cash in. Eaves scored just four seconds after the Sykora penalty ended. His 16th goal of the season put the Senators up 2-0.
The Senators' performance was particularly impressive Thursday since Ottawa was missing three of their top defensemen in Zdeno Chara, Chris Phillips and Wade Redden
. Chara and Phillips were both out with injuries, while Redden was scratched for personal reasons. Goaltender Dominik Hasek, who was hurt during the Olympics, also remained out of the Ottawa lineup on Thursday.