Given the slender margin on the scoreboard, given all the pucks that the team in Blue threw at Jimmy Howard, given that Winged Wheel logo on the opposing bench - at some point or another some of these Rangers must have wondered whether they were skating in a rerun.
It was yet another tight game against the Detroit Red Wings with two veteran goaltenders staring one another down. And in the end it was Jimmy Howard who got the better of the team he grew up rooting for, turning aside 41 Ranger shots to win a duel with Henrik Lundqvist and send the Blueshirts to a 3-2 loss on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden.
Ryan Strome and Brendan Smith each scored third-period goals for the Rangers as they fired on Howard throughout the game and finally broke through in the late stages. But it was not enough to overcome a pair of goals from Andreas Athanasiou, including the empty-netter that came right on the heels of a Pavel Buchnevich near-miss and then wound up as the game-winner.
The Rangers will now have three days in between games for the first time since the January All-Star break. Up next are the suddenly slumping Maple Leafs, on Saturday night in Toronto.
On Tuesday night in Manhattan, one reason the Blueshirts could be sure this game was no repeat was that John Gilmour and Vinni Lettieri had come from Hartford to play in it. Lettieri, playing in his 19th game for the Rangers this season, got the call while leading the Wolf Pack in goals, with 23 in 44 games; Gilmour, the AHL's leading scorer among defensemen, was up making his season debut at the NHL level after playing in the Rangers' final 28 games a year ago.
"It's good to be back, playing under the bright lights of MSG, that's for sure," the 25-year-old Gilmour said. "Obviously wanted a different result, but we made it close and we definitely had our chances."
David Quinn has footage of those games last year to go along with firsthand knowledge of Gilmour when the two were on opposite sides of Hockey East, Gilmour at Providence and Quinn behind Boston University's bench. But it didn't hurt to see it for the first time with his own two eyes in an NHL game.
"I liked his game," Quinn said. "He skates really well. I thought he did a lot of really good things tonight with the puck, he made some good anticipation plays offensively. So certainly some good moments for him."
"I think I know him pretty well by now: He's a good skater, he sees the game really well, I think he competes really hard," said Lundqvist. "He looked comfortable coming out here. It helps when you've been playing a few games before and you know what to expect. I thought he looked good."
Lundqvist, of course, has played more than a few games at this level: During the evening, the goaltender surpassed 50,000 minutes of playing time in his NHL career, every one of them as a Ranger.
Gilmour, meanwhile, skated 18:43 in his 29th career game, on a pair with Neal Pionk to his right. Lettieri finished plus-1 in his 13:02 of ice. Neither could help the Rangers avoid their first regulation loss against Detroit this season, after the other two matchups were settled in overtime and a shootout.
The Red Wings scored eight goals in the teams' three-game season series; half were by Athanasiou.
But the Rangers also ran into Howard, who grew up rooting for the Rangers, wears No. 35 in homage to Mike Richter, and has a habit of playing well against them and being able to match Lundqvist, who is no slouch himself against the Red Wings. Lundqvist entered the game 7-1-5 over the last seven seasons against Detroit, with a 1.48 goals-against average and .942 save percentage.
And yet Howard improved to 10-3-3 in his career against the Blueshirts, with his goals-against average actually going up, to 1.78, with a lifetime save percentage of .948. He made 17 saves in the first, 14 in the second and 10 in the third, just enough for the Rangers' rally to fall short.
Filip Chytil forced his best of the night - the rookie, who has been battling a flu and had not been expected to suit up for the game, put a healthy inside-outside move on Madison Bowey late in the second period, letting one fly with a quick release that Howard threw out his catching glove to snare.
Lundqvist made 27 stops himself, beaten only on a couple of 2-on-1s. First Frans Nielsen opened the scoring inside the final three minutes of the first, taking an inside track on Gilmour and finishing the odd-man rush himself. Then Athanasiou doubled the lead 4½ minutes into the second, flying up the ice to get onto the tail end of a Jacob de la Rose saucer that gave Lundqvist no chance to make a save.
"That's usually where you do get hurt, 2-on-1s, odd-man rushes," Lundqvist said. "But for the most part I think we played a pretty good game. Good energy, good skating, pretty physical.
"When we do execute our game plan, we're close. It is a game of mistakes and that's been costing us a little bit, but I think the approach is pretty good."
Quinn lamented that too many of the Rangers' looks came from the perimeter - or, as Brady Skjei put it: "Not a lot of our shots came from inside the house."
"Honestly though, we didn't give up that much either," Skjei added. "A couple 2-on-1s that hurt us at the start. Other than that I thought we played a pretty decent game."
Video: DET@NYR: Strome bangs in rebound for power-play goal
They climbed back in it on a much-needed power-play goal with 5:14 to play, when Strome scored on a rebound. Buchnevich started the play by taking a glass-rattling hit in order to retrieve a puck; he poked it to Shattenkirk, who walked in and fired. Howard got a pad on it but Strome was there to flip home his 14th goal.
Buchnevich was emotional at the bench after having a terrific look at the equalizer as time wound under a minute. His left-circle one-timer got a piece of Danny DeKeyser, then caromed out to neutral ice, where Athanasiou ran it down and hit the empty net.
Smith, playing as a winger on this night, scored his third goal of the season, putting in the rolling rebound of Brett Howden's drive.
So now the Rangers turn their attention to three days of rest and practice before facing another Original Six rival on Saturday in Toronto.
"I think we worked really hard, and you can't ask for anything more than that type of mindset going in," Lundqvist said. "Leave everything out there, and we'll see if we can get that win in the next one."