It would be fair to say that special teams had a little something to do with the outcome of Sunday's game between the Rangers and Flyers. There were eight goals scored at Madison Square Garden on Sunday afternoon; teams were at even strength for one of them.
"We just couldn't stop their power play," was how David Quinn put this game in a nutshell.
The power-play goals came early and often in this one, but specifically, it was the early ones that had the Blueshirts chasing a game from its very first shift, their late push falling short in a 5-3 loss to Philadelphia in the 300th regular-season meeting of the Rangers and Flyers.
Mika Zibanejad, earlier in the day named the NHL's Second Star for the month of February, scored twice on the first day of March to establish a new career high, and added an assist as well, while Artemi Panarin's pair of helpers stretched his point streak to a career-best 13 games and clinched his first 90-point season.
Pavel Buchnevich also scored on one of his four shots in 22:02, the second-highest total of the winger's career, and Tony DeAngelo had two assists to eclipse 100 points in the NHL - all coming in support of Henrik Lundqvist, who was playing for the 61st time in his career against the Flyers but was stepping in for his first start since Feb. 3. And all of it came, too, after Philadelphia had raced out to a 3-0 advantage after just 20 minutes had been played, and a 4-0 edge only 1:23 into the second period.
That alone was enough to send the Flyers to their season-high sixth consecutive win and the Rangers to back-to-back losses for the first time since the All-Star break.
"They have a really good power play and we just didn't have an answer for it on our penalty kill," said Marc Staal. "They got three. That's too many."
Ultimately, so did the Rangers, even though they were playing for the first time without Chris Kreider since he went down to a fractured foot on Friday night in Philly. All three of their goals Sunday came on man-advantages in the game's second half, including both tallies from Zibanejad, who is up to a career-high 32 on the season now (in just 52 games) and moved into a tie with Alex Ovechkin for the third-most power-play goals in the League this year, with 12.
But for all that, it was the one they allowed on their power play that truly was the backbreaker in this game, the shorthanded goal by Michael Raffl that made it 3-0 just 2:07 before the end of the first. It came off a turnover and an odd-man rush that was not uncommon for Lundqvist to see coming his way on this afternoon.
"We give up the shorthanded one at a very bad time, which I thought really deflated us and gave them life," Quinn said. "It took us out of it for a while."
In doing so, it dropped the Rangers to 9-3 in their last 12 games, and winless in three meetings with the Flyers this season, who come for their last visit to the Garden on the first day of next month, too.
Lundqvist finished with 21 saves. He was tending the Blueshirts' nets for the 886th time, a Rangers record and tying Tony Esposito for eighth place in appearances by a goaltender in NHL history.
"He made some big saves early -- I thought we were really on our heels after they got the first one, and he kept it at bay," Quinn said of Lundqvist "Can't fault him for any of them."
"I was hoping for a better feeling personally coming out there," Lundqvist said, adding that given the time between his starts, "it's a different mindset, that's for sure. But I'm not looking for any excuses.
"I thought I battled. I battled until the end."
The Flyers had five different goal-scorers, with Matt Niskanen, Sean Couturier and Raffl all scoring in the opening period. Deadline-day acquisition Derek Grant got the game's only even-strength marker just 83 seconds into the second - which made it a 4-0 score but turned into the game-winner with the Rangers mounting a third-period push.
They just couldn't push enough past Carter Hart, the 21-year-old Flyer netminder who beat the Blueshirts for the second time in three days, following Philly's win in the home-and-home opener. Hart, in his first start and Madison Square Garden, won for the eighth time in his last nine games on the strength of 23 saves. He was beaten twice by Zibanejad but did well to keep him from a hat trick, with four other good saves on the Ranger center, including a breakaway stop early in the first and a point-blank save during that late Blueshirts press.
The breakaway save came in a 1-0 game, and the afternoon might have unfolded differently if Hart hadn't made it.
"That's not the way to start a game, obviously," Zibanejad said. "You can't do that to yourself, go down 3-nothing like that. Just couldn't get anything going. It's hard to come back when you dig yourselves a hole like that and we couldn't really find an answer for it."
Still, Zibanejad, recognized by the League for a February in which he had 11 goals and 20 points in 15 games and the Rangers set a February franchise record by winning 11 of them, got a head start on the Three Stars voting for March with his fifth multi-goal game this season, and his 20th multi-point game. He had 15 shot attempts by himself in this match, more than one-third the Flyers' team total.
He scored at 12:34 of the second to put the Rangers on the board, and at 12:39 of the third to shave the Flyers' lead to two and set up an intriguing finish. Panarin set him up for both goals, the first of which was a redirection of Panarin's pass into the slot, the second a top-shelf backhander after Brett Howden (points in three of the last four) held a puck in the zone for Panarin to feed Zibanejad in behind the defense.
The road ahead gets no easier for the Blueshirts, not with the St. Louis Blues, the defending Stanley Cup champions and current Western Conference leaders, due into the Garden on Tuesday for the second of this four-game Broadway homestand. But having played their 17th game in 31 days, this one on Sunday an unusual noon start, even just the extra hours in the day were precious to the Rangers.
"(Monday) will be a really good day to kind of get together and take a deep breath and rehash things," Quinn said. "Have a short hard practice and get back at it on Tuesday."