WINNIPEG -- The Rangers did so much heavy lifting against a heavy team on Tuesday night in Manitoba, but not quite enough to carry home the prize.
Trailing by a pair after 20 minutes and facing a dauntingly steep climb against the team with the NHL's second-best home-ice record, the Rangers took over the game in the second period and took over the lead in the third. But Joe Morrow and Andrew Copp knocked their feet out with goals 1:59 apart, and the Rangers tumbled to a 4-3 loss to the Winnipeg Jets in the opener of a four-game road trip.
Mika Zibanejad, the hottest goal-scorer in the NHL these days, put up another two-goal game - the Rangers' No. 1 center now has 13 goals in the last 11 games - his first one getting the Ranger comeback started and his second vaulting them into the lead in the opening minute of the third. Mats Zuccarello assisted on each of them and Chris Kreider on one as that line continued to pile up points, and Pavel Buchnevich got the game-tying goal on a second-period power play from a smart setup by Ryan Strome.
Video: NYR@WPG: Zibanejad pots PPG off two defenders
Henrik Lundqvist - taking his 40th start of 2018-19, which made him the first goaltender in NHL history to play 40 or more games in each of his first 14 seasons - stopped 32 shots in this one, but he got "stuck with a player" on each of the Jets' third-period goals and said he struggled picking up the shots.
Mark Scheifele scored both of the Jets' first-period goals to crack the 30-goal mark this season, and Connor Hellebuyck stopped 34 Ranger shots. The Rangers allowed 19 shots in the first period before outshooting the Jets 27-17 the rest of the way, but Winnipeg improved to 12-0 when tied after 40 minutes and pulled into a tie with San Jose atop the Western Conference standings.
"Disappointing, because I thought for 40 minutes we played really well and hard, (after) we dug ourselves that hole in the first period where we were flat and we didn't have a lot going on," David Quinn said.
His players echoed that. "We dug ourselves a hole in the first, but I thought we battled last two periods," Zibanejad said. "That's a good team we're playing. It's the little things. I thought we worked hard, but it wasn't enough today."
The Rangers were opening a four-game swing that includes stops in Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Raleigh, continuing on Friday night against the Sabres. The Jets, meanwhile, were opening a three-game homestand and picked up their eighth win in their last nine home games (8-0-1) and 21st this season (21-6-3).
This game was something of a reversal of the teams' other meeting this season, on Dec. 2 at the Garden, meaning that this time it was the Jets who had a fast start before the Rangers came charging back. Scheifele scored once from the left circle at 4:58 and once more drifting to the middle on a rush at 18:36 - his second goal came just 17 seconds after Hellebuyck had shot out the catching glove to stop Buchnevich from the slot - and the Rangers huddled up in the visitors' room after 20 minutes in which it seemed as though the Jets were on top of every puck, and every Ranger with it.
"We just talked about the fact that we were afraid - not afraid like we're going to get hurt, but afraid to make plays, afraid to take ice, and I didn't think we established our forecheck," Quinn said. "I just thought we played afraid, we played on our heels."
And yet: "Second period, we came out and were just aggressive - we stuck our nose in there," said Kevin Shattenkirk. "We answered them back, pushed back a little bit. Once you realize against a team like that that you can go toe-to-toe with them, then I think you get more confidence and you start to make plays."
"We got some pucks behind them and started getting physical," added Zibanejad. "We were on them."
It was a flipped script from the second-period puck drop, as the Rangers got goals in both the opening and closing minutes of the frame. Zibanejad halved the deficit on the very first shift, after his linemates worked a puck corner-to-corner onto his stick near the right wall, and he fired one toward Zuccarello in the crease, getting a bounce off Hellebuyck 28 seconds after the intermission.
Video: NYR@WPG: Zibanejad beats Hellebuyck from sharp angle
"It was good to see that line come out and play with that energy and establish the offensive zone, and not be defendable," said Quinn. "You get the goal that early all of sudden it's a 2-1 hockey game, and so early in the second you kind of feel like you come out of the first 2-1. I thought we thrived off that. I thought that set the tempo for the second."
With Jesper Fast in the dressing room after taking an elbow at the endboards from Dustin Byfuglien, his linemate Strome took a spin on the power play and combined with Buchnevich to tie the score. Strome got a pass at the edge of the right circle, turned and fired for the stickblade of Buchnevich, whose redirection caught Hellebuyck moving the wrong way and nestled into the top corner with 40.6 seconds on the clock.
The goal was Buchnevich's 32nd as a Ranger, breaking tie with Pavel Bure for fourth-most by a Russian in franchise history. The man who set it up, Strome, earned praise afterward from his coach, along with his linemates Fast and, for most of the game, Vlad Namestnikov.
Video: NYR@WPG: Buchnevich tips home Strome's feed for PPG
"I thought they had good buzz," the coach said. "They played well, they spent time in the offensive zone. I thought they had some good energy and did some good things."
It was Zibanejad who grabbed the Rangers' first lead on a power play 57 seconds into the third, seeing bodies in front of the Winnipeg goal and firing one from the left wall that pinballed off both Jets defensemen, Jacob Trouba and Josh Morrissey, then past Hellebuyck. Zuccarello assisted along with Shattenkirk; dating to Jan. 12, that Rangers top line of Kreider, Zibanejad and Zuccarello has combined on 49 points (21-28-49) in the 12 games in which they've all played.
But Morrow tied it at 5:22 with his first of the season, off an assist from Scheifele, as Marc Staal and Blake Wheeler battled near Lundqvist, and Copp trailed a rush to finish off his sixth of the year at 7:21, which held up as the winner.
"I think it's a good sign the way we battled back - we turned the switch on, which isn't easy to do when you play that poorly in the first," said Quinn. "To come out and play the way we did in the second and third, we've got to be dialed in on that, focus on that, and build on that. It was a winnable game for us, and disappointing we didn't come out with two points."