The Rangers knew full well that they would have their hands full in trying to slow a top line for the Boston Bruins that includes the League leader in goals and two of the NHL's top five scorers in the season's opening month. It hadn't occurred to the Rangers that they would have to do it without two-thirds of what was supposed to be their own top line for this game.
Mika Zibanejad suffered an upper-body injury late in the first period of Sunday night's matchup with Boston and did not leave the room to start the second, and from that point on the Bruins scored seven times, including an empty-netter, to send the Blueshirts to a 7-4 loss in the fourth of a five-game homestand - and the 2,000th regular-season game in the history of the current Madison Square Garden.
Zibanejad left the game shortly after Boston's Patrice Bergeron had stepped into him with a shoulder up high; David Quinn said afterward that Zibanejad did not have a head injury, and that he is considered "day-to-day." In a game for which Zibanejad's designated right wing, Jesper Fast, was scratched just prior to faceoff for personal reasons, the Rangers' leading scorer took nine shifts for 6:31 in the first period before departing himself.
"Whether that took the wind out of our sails or not," the Head Coach said, "we never found a way after that, that's for sure."
Before Zibanejad left, Micheal Haley had grabbed the lead with his first goal as a Ranger, a putback of Brendan Smith's shot, and later on Pavel Buchnevich had a goal and an assist while Artemi Panarin and Tony DeAngelo each had two assists, DeAngelo's pair giving him six points during a three-game points streak.
But on a day in which the Blueshirts' and Bruins' greats faced off in the Rangers Alumni Classic in the afternoon, the night belonged to the top trio on the Bruins: the fifth career hat trick for Bergeron and five points each for David Pastrnak (0-5--5) and Brad Marchand (2-3--5).
"They're one of the best lines in hockey," said Henrik Lundqvist. "If you don't play them very hard and smart they're going to expose you, and that's what they did."
With two off-days coming after Thursday's convincing Garden win over the League-leading Buffalo Sabres, the Rangers were trying to stretch the momentum of that 60-minute effort into their matchup with a Bruins team that had just one regulation loss over its first 10 games entering this one. But after becoming just the third opponent to score the game's first goal against the Bruins, and taking a lead out of what Quinn described as "a blah period," the Rangers watched the game go sideways in a hurry.
They appeared floored, literally and figuratively, by Boston's goal 11 seconds into the frame and the fact that it was allowed to stand, given that Lundqvist had been knocked flat on his back on a Pastrnak net drive, allowing Bergeron to tap in the sitting puck and tie the game. Pastrnak had had his feet taken out by a sliding Libor Hajek - a delayed call was coming - and the officials huddled and called a goal; video review in Toronto upheld it.
"Interpret that any way you want. I feel like he was hitting him anyways, the route he was on," said Marc Staal. "But stuff like that happens in the game, you've just got to learn to deal with that. We didn't deal with it very well."
"You could feel the first couple minutes there how we kind of got away from it," said Lundqvist, who made 27 saves in 40 minutes. "I was hoping for a better period - I felt really good, I felt sharp in the first period, and second period it was just tough. They were moving pucks side to side and exposed us in the middle a little bit. But that call set the tone for the period."
Marchand scored his first goal alone in front just 57 seconds later, and Boston scored four straight times in the opening 12:09 of the second.
"There's a lot of structural stuff that we didn't do, but I think at the end of the day it's about not losing our composure," said Chris Kreider. "We had a couple guys who go down pretty early in the game, and some weird stuff. We got a little bit too emotional, I think, and got away from our game and stopped doing the things we were doing so well last game."
In spite of all that, this game's closing moments included an empty Ranger net and six attackers on. Buchnevich scored his second of the season 8:15 into the third period - three nights after he had set up DeAngelo for a goal with a sharp feed across the middle, DeAngelo returned the favor - and Kreider picked up his second goal in as many games with 1:59 to play.
Once Brady Skjei snuck in to pot a big rebound, and his first of the season, 21 seconds after Kreider's tally - Ryan Strome's assist stretched his points streak to four games - the score was 6-4 and the Garden crowd was wondering if a wild comeback was possible. But Bergeron squashed any thoughts of that by hitting the empty net 44.7 seconds from the end.
The Rangers reconvene for practice on Monday, and conclude their homestand on Tuesday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning, when they will try to return to what propelled them to their rout of the Sabres. Three of their next four games are on Garden ice, with a trip to Nashville wedged in next weekend.
"We talked about why we had success against Buffalo: We kept it simple, and we won battles, and that's it," Lundqvist said. "When we get away from that we're going to have a tough time to win games."