On the heels of impressive back-to-back wins against two of the NHL's top teams, the Rangers picked up right where they left off, right at the drop of the puck on Monday night. But a funny thing happened somewhere past the midpoint of the first period, and when their game against the Ottawa Senators turned, it U-turned.
The Rangers dominated the opening 11-plus minutes of this game, grabbing an early lead on the third goal of Kaapo Kakko's young career, but Ottawa followed by scoring the next five in a row to send the Blueshirts to a 6-2 defeat on Monday night at Madison Square Garden.
The Rangers lost in regulation for just the second time in their last six games, but given how the team had been trending over the course of the last week and the course of the first 11 minutes, it was a bracing turnabout.
"I mean, we came out flying," said Jesper Fast. "I think we gave up one shot the first 10 minutes and had the puck almost the whole time. And then suddenly they scored a goal and we were sitting back.
"It's hard when you're two different teams in a season. We're a team, we're playing hard and playing physical and helping each other, and then we're a team that thinks hockey is an easy game."
To be precise, it wasn't until 11:23 had been played before the Rangers allowed a shot to reach Alexandar Georgiev - by that time, the Blueshirts had the game's first nine shots and its first goal, for which they pressed in the Ottawa end as a five-man unit the way they had in convincing wins over Nashville, Tampa Bay and Buffalo over the past two weeks.
Kakko finished it off for his second goal in three games - this one off an outstanding setup from Adam Fox - and finished the night with a goal and an assist for his first multi-point game in the NHL. He became just the third 18-year-old in Rangers history to have multiple points in a game, along with Joe Bell in 1942-43 and Manny Malhotra twice in 1998-99. He was a bright spot for his Head Coach to point to afterward.
"Very much so - he had a really good night," David Quinn said. "You can just see him playing with a different level of confidence right now."
Artemi Panarin extended his points streak to five games with a power-play goal in the second period, off Kakko's terrific circle-to-circle feed. Panarin also took over the team lead in points with 12, for the time being surpassing Mika Zibanejad, the Rangers' No. 1 center who sat out his third straight game with an upper-body injury.
But Jean-Gabriel Pageau answered for Ottawa six minutes after Kakko's goal, Pageau's first of two on the night. Ron Hainsey, Tyler Ennis (5-on-3), Vlad Namestnikov and Brady Tkachuk also scored, Tkachuk adding an assist and plenty of his customary abrasiveness, which may or may not be of note when these teams meet again in Ottawa in less than three weeks' time.
The Rangers have plenty to do in between now and then, including a back-to-back set beginning on Wednesday at the Garden with a nationally televised game against the Red Wings. The Blueshirts have demonstrated they are capable of bouncing back from a confounding loss, and "hopefully we can learn from this," Quinn said. "It was an opportunity to continue to build on two really good games against two really good teams. … I don't know whether because the first 11 minutes unfolded the way they did that we thought it was going to be easy, but you see what happens when you approach it that way. You pay a price."
Shots were 8-0 Rangers after Kakko's went in - an intentional offside against Ottawa brought the faceoff back down to the Senators' end, and Quinn threw three rookies, and five players 23 and under, out to take it: Kakko, Brett Howden, Brendan Lemieux, Fox and Ryan Lindgren. After Howden won a faceoff, Lemieux sped to the corner to keep a puck after Kakko had been bumped off it, then after he threw it through the crease, Fox activated to retrieve it and slapped a superb pass onto the stick of Kakko atop the crease. The teenager calmly took it to his backhand and tucked it in behind Anders Nilsson (32 saves).
The Rangers were dominating play, but "anytime you're tilting the ice on a team, they're going to have a pushback," said Chris Kreider. "I don't know if we just weren't ready for it or what, but we got off our game and we didn't find it again."
"Really, the game was two different games: It was the 11-minute game and it was a 49-minute game. Unfortunately we played the 11-minute game," Quinn said. "I was actually a little concerned as the first 10 minutes was unfolding, just because I know what can happen. I know human nature can kick in, and I know when you've got youth you think things might be easy. And give Ottawa a lot of credit, they upped the ante."
The Rangers play three of their next four games on Garden ice, Wednesday's visit from Wings, who on Monday night lost for the 11th time in 12 games, a fact which will not affect the Blueshirts' preparation. "We showed last week the way we have to play," Fast said. "That's the way we have to go about it: Be angry today, then reset for Wednesday."