Given that the Rangers had climbed back twice to tie the score, given Adam Fox stepping out of the penalty box just 17 seconds into the third period after a crucial kill of a woeful call, given that since the start of the season the Rangers have been one of the better third-period teams in hockey, they had reasons to be feeling comfortable where they stood in a tie game with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Friday night.
Perhaps that's why, then, Toronto's goals just 47 seconds apart before the third period was three minutes old proved such a shock to the Rangers' system, and led them down the road to a 6-3 defeat to the Maple Leafs at Madison Square Garden.
The Rangers had come in rested after a rare three days in between games, and also had come in a plus-12 in third periods through 33 games this season, putting them up among the League leaders. But Toronto pulled away with three unanswered on this night as the Rangers dropped the opener of a three-games-in-four-days set that will take them into the Christmas break.
"Just as a team, learning how to win those kinds of games -- it's one period, it's a tie game," Marc Staal said afterward. "Just got to do a better job of managing the puck and managing the game, and just waiting for opportunities. We didn't do that at the start (of the third), and it hurt us."
The Blueshirts had spent much of the first two periods establishing a bothersome forecheck and removing a couple monkeys from a couple players' backs: Pavel Buchnevich and Ryan Strome each scored and made little secret of how eager they were to do so, while Mika Zibanejad's first-period setup of Brady Skjei's goal was Zibanejad's 100th assist in a Blueshirt. Both he and Artemi Panarin -- who along with Buchnevich teed up Strome's goal -- extended their respective point streaks, Zibanejad to four games and Panarin to six.
But William Nylander and Mitch Marner were responsible for the quick strikes in the third period that grabbed ahold of the game for the Maple Leafs, who won for the fifth time in their last six games and improved to 9-4 under new Head Coach Sheldon Keefe.
Both players had earlier goals, too, Nylander in the first and Marner during a 5-on-3 in the second, all bookended by an early goal from Pierre Engvall and a late one from Ilya Mikheyev.
Alexandar Georgiev stopped 34 shots for the Rangers while Frederik Andersen made 19 saves -- and heard the friendly sounds of three Ranger shots ringing off his iron, two of them from Zibanejad -- to pick up his League-leading 18th win of the season.
"You go into the third period," David Quinn said, "it's 3-3, you do a good job killing a penalty off and give yourself an opportunity, and we've been a good third-period team this year. We just certainly weren't tonight."
Instead, on this night they did their damage over the first 40 minutes, when twice they erased Toronto advantages and brought a tie game into each intermission. Engvall and Nylander staked the Leafs to a 2-0 lead in the game's first 11:02, but the Rangers pushed right back with a pair of their own off a forecheck that repeatedly got on top of the Leafs.
Skjei finished the first one at 14:04 when Kreider was first on a rim-around at the right wall and made an exceptional play to angle his stick and direct the puck to Zibanejad, who set up the goal-scorer. Strome then tied the game 2:09 before first intermission off of Buchnevich's steal behind the net, and Panarin's pass across the goalmouth.
In its first game together the Panarin-Strome-Buchnevich trio combined for four points and a plus-2 night.
"First two goals we score, we get pucks behind them, we establish a forecheck and we score," Quinn said. "We just didn't do that enough tonight. If you're going to beat that team, you better spend way more time in the offensive zone."
Buchnevich's goal in the second period came just 2:37 after Marner cashed in a 5-on-3, and it came on the kind of the play Quinn has been asking for more of. Kreider and Fil Chytil convened a crowd in front of the net -- Chytil was standing in against 6-4, 210-pound defenseman Justin Holl -- and when Staal's simple wrister from the blue line hit the crowd, Buchnevich was there to swoop in and collect it, then swivel to beat Andersen through the wickets.
Buchnevich finished with the two points and three shots on goal in 18:44 on ice, three minutes of that on power plays. He had put 10 shots on goal in the previous two games and hadn't seen a breakthrough, but Quinn was saying even before this game that it looked like one could be on its way.
"Once a guy gets one, a couple usually follow," Quinn said. "So I'm hoping that's the case for him."
The Rangers could use it, with just two games left to play -- a Sunday Garden matinee against Anaheim followed by Monday's visit to Philadelphia -- before the NHL calls timeout for Christmas. Quinn doesn't see a bothersome trend in his team's game because what hampered them tonight were "things we really haven't been doing."
"I liked most of the game in Anaheim (last Saturday), and then I liked the way we played against Nashville (on Monday)," the Coach said. "That being said, as we've talked about, this League can be streaky," he added. "So we've got to be ready to play on Sunday afternoon."