ST. PAUL -- More than one Ranger noted a "playoff atmosphere" in the rink and "desperation" in the home team. The Blueshirts had no problem at all with how they handled the circumstances; it was just a couple of missteps in how they handled the puck.
Playing their fourth road game in six nights against a rested and desperate Wild team, the Rangers picked up their battle level but dropped the battle, 5-2 in the Minnesota capital to wrap up their four-city journey. Ten games now remain this season, half on the road and half at home, where the Rangers were eager to return after a grinding week through Western Canada and back.
"Better than the other game," Mika Zibanejad said, referring to the Rangers' improvement in the tail end of a back-to-back. "I think we still have better in us. We've just got to build on the good things and move on - get excited to get home, and play at home."
"You've got to be really mentally tough to stay with it and get yourself out of it," David Quinn said. "We've just got to keep fighting and moving forward and we get to address some things in practice, which we haven't had a chance to do in a while."
Zibanejad, skating in his 200th game as a Ranger, scored in the first period of this one to establish a new career high in goals, while Pavel Buchnevich got on the board yet again in the third period, off one of Tony DeAngelo's sweeter assists in more than a month full of them.
Henrik Lundqvist, meanwhile, backstopped the Rangers with 41 saves and gave them every opportunity to get back into the game in the later stages.
But Minnesota turned a couple of Ranger turnovers into first-period goals, then a whole heap of puck luck into the second-period tally that turned into the game-winner. Ryan Donato, Minnesota's 22-year-old trade-deadline acquisition from Boston, scored both his team's goals in the first, and Eric Staal got the friendly bounce off a Ranger that snuck through Lundqvist early in the middle frame. Eleven different Wild players finished the night with a point.
The Rangers got three more points from defensemen on this night: In addition to DeAngelo, Brady Skjei - a childhood Wild fan from Lakeville, Minn. - and Kevin Shattenkirk picked up helpers, Skjei's coming on Buchnevich's fourth goal in the last six games.
Still, Minnesota, badly needing a win to snap a three-game losing streak, crept within two points of Arizona for the West's second Wild Card.
"It was a playoff atmosphere tonight," said Shattenkirk, who has seven points in his last 11 games. "I think the fans knew what was on the line for them, and they obviously brought that desperation. I loved our effort, I loved the way we worked. I think guys were hungry and desperate ourselves.
"But we just had a lot of mistakes that fed them. Whether they went in or not, we just kept giving them momentum back and not allowing ourselves to gain it."
It put them in a hole from early on, when a turnover in each team's zone led to Donato's goals, the first with a wrist shot on a 2-on-1 rush, the second on the tiniest of deflections of Luke Kunin's shot from the high slot.
Quinn, who not once this season has had cause to question his team's effort, thought he saw a slip in its energy in the opener of this back-to-back, Friday night in Calgary.
On Saturday, "We had a lot more energy, and I thought we did a lot of good things tonight," the coach said, "but we were really sloppy with the puck and in our own end. We caused a lot of our own problems with our puck management and some of the things we were trying to do."
Donato's first goal, 4:40 into the game, meant that the Rangers had allowed the game's first goal in each of the four games of the trip. However, in three out of the four - all except Wednesday's game in Vancouver, in which back-to-back major penalties turned the game on a different path altogether - the Rangers fought back to tie the score.
Video: NYR@MIN: Zibanejad banks puck in off Dubnyk
This time it was Zibanejad who brought it level, and he couldn't help the smile on his face when he scored it. He was first on a rim-around in the right corner and, with Devan Dubnyk (26 saves) out of his crease and trying to get back, Zibanejad flung it at him from an impossible angle, below the goal line. It clipped Dubnyk's stick and got inside the far post, 1:20 after Donato opened the scoring.
It was Zibanejad's team-best, and career-best, 28th of the season.
But after Donato scored again to put the home side in front after 20 minutes, Eric Staal came down on a 2-on-1 early in the second with Pionk back defending. The Ranger blueliner laid out to cut off the pass, but when Staal tried to steer it around him anyway, Pionk's swung his stick wound up knocking it through Lundqvist, who was moving over with the pass. It made the score 3-1 at 4:51 of the second, and the Rangers couldn't escape that hole.
"You force plays, it's going to cost you," Lundqvist said. "I think it's important down the stretch here that we push these issues, because it's going to carry over to next season.
"We all have to battle and stay positive. But it's important down the stretch that we play the right way no matter what."
Video: NYR@MIN: Buchnevich beats Dubnyk with nifty move
There was nothing wrong with the DeAngelo-to-Buchnevich combination in the third period, which followed Jared Spurgeon's power-play goal and made it a 4-2 game. On the play, DeAngelo drew the defense forward by retreating in neutral ice before backhanding a pass against the grain for Buchnevich, who sliced through the middle and pushed a backhander of his own between Dubnyk's pads. DeAngelo's assist was his 13th in his last 16 games, and his 27th point this season, tops among Ranger defensemen.
The Rangers once again pulled Lundqvist with around three minutes remaining, and J.T. Brown scored into the empty net to send the Rangers traveling home on a sour note. They'll have an off-day Sunday before returning to practice Monday, ahead of Tuesday's Garden match with the Detroit Red Wings.
"I thought we worked harder today, but we still have got to work smarter," said Vlad Namestnikov. "Have to keep plugging away; that's how we're going to go forward."