The Rangers came to Madison Square Garden on Friday night with a chance to sweep a back-to-back set and also to tidy up some trouble spots from a victory just 24 hours before.
For just a sliver shy of 59 minutes Friday night they appeared on course to accomplish both. Until with overtime in sight it slipped from their grasp in the blink of an eye.
Nate Thompson's goal off a transition rush with just 1:07 left to play broke a longstanding tie and sent the Rangers to a tough 2-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens as they say farewell to the Garden for the next 10 days.
Friday's was only the second regulation loss in the last eight games for the Rangers, but on this night it wiped away some of the gloss of Brendan Smith's breakaway beauty against Carey Price in the second period - a goal that happened to bear a striking resemblance to one his brother scored at the Garden just four days earlier, and one that is bound to have a home when the Rangers' 2019-20 highlight reel is put together.
But because it was the only puck to get past Price on this night, the Blueshirts had to go pack for their first West Coast trip of the season with a sour taste in their mouths.
"Obviously it stings," said Mika Zibanejad. "We were better than (Thursday) night, and they get a couple of bounces, they get that pass to the backdoor and it's an empty net and they win the game. So this one stings."
And it was a helpless feeling for Alexandar Georgiev, strong once again on his second consecutive night in the Ranger nets - 31 saves the day after making 45 in a victory in Columbus - but powerless to do anything about Thompson's winner. It came off a counterattack, with Adam Fox blocking a Nick Cousins shot but Cousins tapping the second attempt over toward Thompson following the play on the right. All Thompson had to do was touch it in the direction of the net.
"It's a tough way to lose," said Georgiev, whose count now is up to 131 saves on his last 136 shots (.963). "I think the guys played really well today, and it's really tough that we didn't get a single point from today."
"It's one of those bounces in the neutral zone and they go the other way and they score," Zibanejad said. "And it stinks that it's just one minute left and you don't get anything out of the game."
Price finished with 29 saves for the Canadiens, a night after serving as Cayden Primeau's backup when the Habs opened their own back-to-back set with a home-ice loss to Colorado on Thursday night. Price won for the second straight time following six consecutive defeats - and also for the 333rd time in his NHL career, tying Nikolai Khabibulin and Rangers Hall of Famer Gump Worsley for 24th all-time.
The only man to get one past him on Friday was Smith, with the speed and hands of a seasoned goal-scorer. Smith was in the defensive zone and racing out to cover his man at the right point; when the pass there skipped over the stickblade of that man, Otto Leskinen, Smith was already in stride leaving the zone, then turned on the jets to go in alone on Price.
Once he hit the hashmarks he kicked to fake a shot, moved the puck to his backhand and tucked one perfectly off the bottom of the bar. It was a spitting image of the move that Reilly Smith had used on Henrik Lundqvist when the Vegas Golden Knights were on Garden ice on Monday, only Brendan's shot was even better than his kid brother's.
The goal was Smith's third of the season, and it forged a 1-1 tie that would hold for nearly 37 minutes. It answered Brendan Gallagher's tally 10:37 into the game, another goal off a rush with assists from linemates Phillip Danault and Tomas Tatar. That Montreal trio was a handful for much of the night, but in the big picture David Quinn saw a Ranger team that offered a strong response to what they felt was a subpar defensive effort in Thursday's win over the Blue Jackets.
"I certainly liked our intentions much better; it was night and day from a defensive standpoint," the Head Coach said. "Our attentions, our support, our structure, all those things.
"It's just disappointing. It was two teams that looked like they played last night, and unfortunately we were the first team to blink. Fifty-nine minutes into the game. Disappointing."
Smith was part of a lineup shuffle that Quinn employed in the second half of this game - Kaapo Kakko was given a look with Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin - which the coach said was "Just try to light a spark under us a little bit."
"Didn't have as many chances as we would like, but neither did either team," Quinn said. "It was kind of one of those nights."
And so after playing on consecutive nights the Rangers were forced to settle for a split of a back-to-back in which they felt their goaltender stole two points in the opener, then believed they warranted a better fate in the finale. It sends them into a travel day on Saturday, when they will fly to Las Vegas for a rematch with Smith's brother and the Golden Knights to begin a four-game, eight-day trip out West.
"It's tough," said Marc Staal, who missed 13 games after blocking a shot, then blocked three shots his return. "It's a funny game sometimes, and I thought we deserved better tonight.
"We play again in a couple days," Staal added. "Just got to have a short memory."