Monday night at Madison Square Garden was Game No. 7,000, in the regular season and playoffs, in the 94-year history of the New York Rangers. David Quinn has never been too concerned with neat round numbers, though, and anyway the Head Coach of the present-day Rangers had some different math on his mind by the end of the night.
Game 51 of the 2019-20 season "was a tale of two games," as Quinn put it, and ultimately, the Rangers were sunk by the second part of it, as a dominant start turned into a 5-3 defeat to the Dallas Stars in the opening match of a four-game Garden homestand.
Brendan Lemieux had a goal and an assist, and Pavel Buchnevich and Brett Howden scored first-period goals - Howden, with his first-ever power-play tally, eclipsing his goal total as a rookie a year ago - as the Rangers' power play continued its torrid run, a tidy 3-for-3 on this night for a man-up corps that has been the NHL's best for more than a month now. But the Stars scored a pair of rapid-fire power-play goals of their own in the first period, then built a cushion at even strength in the second to hand the Blueshirts -- playing without Chris Kreider, who suffered an upper-body injury in Saturday's win in Detroit and is considered day-to-day -- their first defeat coming out of the All-Star break, and only their third in the last nine games on Broadway.
First-year Star Joe Pavelski scored both of Dallas' power-play goals in the first - within just 16 seconds of one another - and defenseman Stephen Johns had a goal and an assist for his first multi-point game in the NHL. And Anton Khudobin finished with 33 saves to pick up just his second win in seven career games against the Rangers.
Even so, the Rangers' power play put three pucks past him on Monday night, and is now 7-for-13 over the last four games, as well as 17-for-42 (40.5 percent) since Dec. 27 - best in the NHL during the span. Artemi Panarin, Adam Fox and Tony DeAngelo each had power-play assists on this night - and so did Kaapo Kakko, whose helper was his 17th point of the season, the Rangers record for an 18-year-old.
But when it was all done Monday, the Rangers were unanimous in pointing to Johns' goal as the game's turning point: It broke a 2-all tie 7:52 into the second and took the air out of the home bench.
"We started off playing a decent game, a solid game. When it was 2-2 I thought things were going well," said Brady Skjei. "But it seemed like when they went up 3-2 we kind of just stopped taking care of the puck as well as we were in the beginning, and stopped playing with that speed that we knew we had to play with against a team like that, a defensively sound team."
"It looked like we just really get deflated after we gave up that third goal -- which, it's one goal, you're still in the game," Quinn said. "It really was a tale of two games for us. I really liked what we were doing up until that third goal; then we really got away from all the things that we had been doing, and need to do if we're going to have success."
They certainly were doing those things from the drop of the puck, coming off their home-and-home sweep of the Red Wings and showing up to play against the Stars. They had eight of the game's first nine shots, including the first goal: A Ryan Strome neutral-ice steal-and-dish to Panarin led to an Andrew Cogliano trip on the Rangers' leading scorer 1:27 into the match; Buchnevich seized the lead at 2:29.
It was Buchnevich's 10th of the season - he is the seventh Ranger to reach double digits in goals - and it came not on either of his two tips from in front that Khudobin had to fight off, but rather on heave along the ice from the left wall that found its way through Khudobin's legs, likely because the goaltender was preoccupied with Mika Zibanejad charging to the backdoor.
But Pavelski answered on a power-play redirection at 8:08 - a goal the Rangers challenged, believing that the carom of a Tyler Seguin bomb off the goalpost moments before had been kept in play by the netting over the glass. Officials took a long look but stuck with the call, resulting in a bench minor to the Rangers for delay of game; Pavelski scored on that one, too, at 8:24.
"We thought it was 100 percent out," Quinn said. "Obviously we had an angle they didn't see, or there was some discrepancy. We thought for sure it was going to get called back."
And yet: "I liked our response," Skjei said. "Obviously that's not the start you want as a penalty killer, but we had a good response. I thought we got back on track there."
Howden scored at 15:41 just as a Dallas bench minor was to expire, with an impressively quick glove-to-stick finish after catching the pop fly that Kakko's partially blocked shot had created. This goal required video review, too - referee Trevor Hanson waved it off just as soon as it was in, ruling that Howden had scored with his glove. Replays showed clearly that Howden, after reaching over his head for the puck, put it at his feet and swept it home with his stickblade just before it crossed illegally.
That was the first special-teams goal of Howden's NHL career, and his seventh goal in his 51st game this season - one beyond his total of six in 66 games as a rookie last year. He is still two months shy of his 22nd birthday.
Howden also won 11 out of 13 faceoffs, including the offensive-zone win off of which Fox wristed one from the right point into a perfect tip from Lemieux. By that point, though, three straight Dallas goals from Johns, Blake Comeau and Corey Perry had opened up the game, and though the Rangers pressed with an extra attacker on in the final minutes, they dropped the first game of this homestand, with the Toronto Maple Leafs on deck Wednesday night.
"We know we all need to play with our speed, with our skill, with our physicality, and if we do that we feel like we can play with anyone in the League," Skjei said. "We've got to stay with that structure through a whole 60 minutes, and it got away from us tonight."