In the space of only three days, every high and low that comes with a last-minute goal has been visited upon the Rangers. Thursday's thrilling victory on Long Island was all about the exhilaration of Chris Kreider's winner in the final half-minute; Sunday's Garden defeat to Columbus presented the sting of the other side of that coin.
Where Kreider was the hero at Nassau Coliseum three days earlier, Oliver Bjorkstrand returned from injury to play the role for the Columbus Blue Jackets on Sunday night, scoring his second goal of the game with 26.5 seconds remaining to send the Blueshirts to a 2-1 defeat at Madison Square Garden in their second-to-last game before getting a little midseason breather.
The loss snapped the Rangers' Garden winning streak at five, and was just their second defeat in the last six games, while the Blue Jackets won for the fifth straight time and improved to a remarkable 15-2-4 over their last 21 games. Columbus became the first team in a month to hold the Rangers under five goals on Garden ice: The Blueshirts had outscored opponents 27-12 over their five-game home streak, but on Sunday night a carefully played game - only one penalty was whistled all night - came down to one last rush and one little opening for Bjorkstrand.
"It's a tight game, both teams are playing pretty good, and it comes down to that last minute," said Mika Zibanejad. "We give them one opportunity there. They took advantage of it and got the two points. That is tough."
They'll get a chance to wash away the taste on Tuesday night, when their three-games-in-nine-days mini-series with the Islanders concludes on Broadway - and in the bigger picture, a victory there would allow them to hit a target that David Quinn said he and his staff had set two weeks ago.
"We've got one more before the (All-Star) break," the Head Coach said. "We get that one, we've got a chance to go 5-2 after the West Coast trip, which is kind of what we were talking about when we got on the plane leaving Vancouver."
He called Sunday's loss "just disappointing. But listen, we've got to move past it and get ready for Tuesday."
Before doing so, some credit was due to the goaltenders in Sunday night's match, both of whom were rookies and both of whom gave their teams a chance to snag two points. Igor Shesterkin took just his third NHL start in the Blueshirts' nets after winning his first two, and he finished with 29 saves on a night he kept a shutout bid alive past the six-minute mark of the third period. In his three career starts so far, Shesterkin now has stopped 104 of 112 shots, a .929 save percentage.
Remarkably, the Rangers' 24-year-old rookie was the veteran in this goaltending matchup: Matiss Kivlenieks was making his NHL debut for the Blue Jackets, with Joonas Korpisalo injured and Elvis Merzlikins having taken the previous 10 starts in a row. The 23-year-old Kivlenieks allowed Brady Skjei's first-period score, then stopped all 21 Ranger shots after first intermission to pick up his first NHL win.
Skjei, for a while, dominated the scoresheet, in that he scored the only goal of the first 40 minutes, and was assessed the only penalty of the night - one of those things leading directly to the other. The goal, with 1:37 left in the first, was Skjei's seventh of the season and another goal that was reminiscent of one from Thursday on the Island: a defenseman hopping out of the penalty box, racing to the attack and sniping one.
And both times, those defensemen happened to get the puck from their partners on the play - on Thursday it was Tony DeAngelo picking up a Marc Staal clear to race in and score; on Sunday it was Jacob Trouba blocking a shot, then looking for a home-run pass to Skjei out of the box. His pass misconnected, but Skjei was first to the carom off the backboards, took two looks at Kivlenieks, took out a 9-iron and chipped it perfectly over the Columbus rookie's catching glove. He is now one shy of his career high in goals.
But as much as the Rangers were lamenting how the third period unfolded - prior to Sunday, they had been 16-0-2 this season when leading after 40 minutes - they believed afterward that their opening to grab ahold of the game came with a one-goal lead in the second.
"Second period, we had some stretches where we were playing really well. We wanted to get to the middle of the ice, and we had our chances," Skjei said. "But overall I think we've got to try to create a little more, be a little more physical."
"We had pretty good chances, especially in that second period, and can't find a way to score," said Zibanejad. "Games like this, you've got to take advantage of the chances you have. Even though it's the second period, you can do a lot if you're up 2- or 3-nothing instead of only 1-nothing going into the third."
Once that third period began, Quinn upped the ice time for Brendan Lemieux, who was making his return from a three-week absence because of a fractured hand. Lemieux was on for 6:23 over the first two periods, then for 7:26 in the third. "I thought Lemieux had energy," Quinn said. "Usually that's what happens when you come back from being out, you get a lot of energy and you play at a pace."
"Playing, adjusting to the speed of the game, it isn't easy," said Lemieux, who hadn't played since Dec. 27, "but considering how long I was out I feel pretty good."
Bjorkstrand was going through something similar. He had last played for Columbus on Dec. 21 because of a rib injury, but leapfrogging that absence he now has scored seven goals in his last five games. He tied the score, and canceled any ideas of a Shesterkin shutout, off a broken rush 6:08 into the third. He snapped that tie with his 14th of the season in the last half-minute, this time off an intact odd-man rush. Both shots were blistering and perfectly placed upstairs - a different story from these teams' Dec. 5 match in Columbus, when Bjorkstrand tied a franchise record with 10 shots on goal, missed five others, had two blocked and left emptyhanded.
Shesterkin said he saw Bjorkstrand's first shot on its way in - it was put in the top corner - but was screened on the second. "I'm really disappointed," Shesterkin said through an interpreter, exhibiting his typical calm, "but we need to move forward."