The Rangers had an opponent on the ropes and staggering from the start of the third period to the finish on Sunday afternoon, and the bell couldn't come soon enough for the Vancouver Canucks. But when it finally rang, rather than celebrating the best period of hockey they've played this season, the Rangers were left lamenting that it was not quite enough.
"The third period, we got the speed going, the legs going, and started playing very desperate hockey, and it looked great," said Henrik Lundqvist. "It was just too big a hill to climb."
Jesper Fast scored late in the second period and Artemi Panarin early in the third, and the Rangers threw everything they had at Jacob Markstrom's goal for the final 25 minutes on Sunday afternoon, but the Vancouver goaltender was able to fight them off just enough until the horn sounded to put an end to the Rangers' 3-2 loss to the Canucks in the opener of a season-long five-game homestand at Madison Square Garden.
Markstrom finished the game with 38 saves, 16 of them coming in the third period as the Rangers set up shop at the Eighth Ave. end of the Garden. Nine different Rangers put pucks on Markstrom's goal in the third period alone, three each by Panarin, Mika Zibanejad and Kaapo Kakko. But only Panarin could sneak one by him in the final frame, and it was all the Canucks could do to survive and escape Midtown with their fifth win in their last six games.
"It just means we dug ourselves a hole in the first," said Zibanejad, whose assist on Panarin's tally gave him points in four of the Rangers' six games this season, and 11 points already this year. "It just shows that you can't just play for 25, 30 minutes. The whole game is not going to look perfect, it's not going to be all just good stuff, but we've got to learn to manage the game a little bit more when we don't feel like it's going our way.
"Obviously the good thing about it is the pushback, and that's what we'll try to take with us."
They'll also take another superb, 40-save performance from their goaltender - Lundqvist was besieged early on as Markstrom was later, seeing 37 shots in the first two periods alone. He made 17 saves in the first period, another 17 in the second, then wiped away all six pucks that came his way while his teammates carried the attack in the third.
Vancouver outshot the Rangers 37-23 through second intermission; the Rangers turned the tables to the tune of 17-6 in the third. David Quinn said that "we felt fortunate" to be trailing by no more than three, thanks to Lundqvist. "I thought we did a nice job of taking advantage of an opportunity that our goalie gave us," the Head Coach said.
"You cannot win a game in the first, but you can definitely lose one, and that's what happened today," Lundqvist said.
That first period was not quite 17 minutes old when the Rangers' found themselves staring down a three-goal deficit, on Vancouver goals coming three different ways: Bo Horvat scored on a power play 6:01 in - the 100th NHL goal for the Canucks' new captain, who had seven shots on goal - Brock Boeser doubled the lead at 13:34 off an even-strength turnover, and Jay Beagle added a shorthanded marker at 16:53.
It was Beagle's goal, which ultimately became the game-winner, that seemed particularly vexing to Lundqvist, because Zibanejad had chased Beagle down the rink and caught him; somehow Beagle got a shot away even after Zibanejad had lifted his stick, which came to Lundqvist's surprise. "That whole situation froze me a little bit," the goaltender said.
Still, Lundqvist kept it right there after that and allowed his team a chance to collect itself, and when the Rangers reached their dressing room during the first intermission, Ryan Strome said there was some honest dialogue among teammates.
"After the first was pretty tough in here," Strome said as he sat at his locker. "We came in and we got yelled at, we yelled at each other a little bit, and then we came out with a better second and a great third. We're a young team, we're trying to find our way here, and we have to do that for 60 minutes.
"But the template is there. That third period, we saw what we can do."
Fast, Strome's linemate, played a major role in sparking that third - he actually got it going 5:02 before the end of the second, flashing across Markstrom's crease and putting a tip on Jacob Trouba's blue-line wrister. For Fast, who had been robbed by Markstrom eight minutes into the match, it was his second goal in three games, with Strome picking up his third assist in four.
Then Fast was in on the puck battle that he and Zibanejad won in the right corner, and took it along the goal line before feeding Panarin at the right hashmarks for a precise finish over Markstrom's shoulder. It left the Rangers with 14½ minutes to find the equalizer, and they used every second to press for it.
"Disappointing we couldn't get one there - I think we were in their zone probably three quarters, 80 percent of the period," Strome said. "The emotion of the crowd was back, and that was a good feeling. Would have been nice to get one and tie it up."
"To respond the way we did was a good sign," Quinn said. "We've got to build on that."
They'll have a chance to do so with four more home games during this Garden stay, with the streaking Arizona Coyotes next up on Tuesday night.