NEWARK -- The snap of Artemi Panarin's stick late in the third period of Thursday night's game was symbolism so clear it could have skated over to the Rangers' bench and bopped them over the head. Things on this night simply were breaking for the other guys.
Panarin was attempting a breakaway pass to a teammate exiting the penalty box with under eight minutes to play in a one-goal game when everything backfired in the blink of an eye: His stick exploded on him, forcing him to leave it and the puck alone, and New Jersey's Nikita Gusev swooped right in to score the insurance marker that effectively squashed a Ranger rally in a 5-2 loss to Devils.
Tony DeAngelo and Jesper Fast each scored their first goal of the season for the Blueshirts, DeAngelo's early goal making it four times in four games this season that the Rangers have opened the scoring. But once Fast buried a backhander to pull the Rangers within a goal with all kinds of time left in the third, penalties and melting sticks combined to put the game out of reach and send the Rangers to their first road loss.
"I actually thought that was the most energetic game we've played, the most physical game," David Quinn said afterward. "I thought we established some sort of forecheck. I thought there were signs of what we're going to need to do to have success. So there are some silver linings here.
"But at the end of the day you've got to win a hockey game, and we just weren't able to win the special-teams game."
It was fitting that a central figure in that pivotal broken-stick sequence was a player jumping free from the penalty box (in this case it was Fast), because in a game that had garnered national TV attention as the first NHL meeting between Kaapo Kakko and Jack Hughes, it was special teams that stuck its nose in as the storyline -- 13 power plays between the two teams, and only 39 out of the 60 minutes played at 5-on-5. It made for a somewhat disjointed game at times, even though of those 13 power plays only one resulted in a goal.
The Rangers finished 0-for-6 on the night, the Devils 1-for-7 plus the goal just after Fast's minor had expired and Panarin's stick had betrayed him.
"Obviously they won the special-teams battle, which was the difference in the game at the end of the day," Quinn said, adding that he thought "that's probably as sluggish as we've looked on the power play all year."
Still, given the weapons the Rangers carry on that power play this season, it might be fair to say that they'll take their chances getting six power plays a night. "They did a good job on their PK," said Jacob Trouba, who played a game-high 27:14, including 12:53 on special teams. "But it's pretty early in the year to start pushing the panic button on the power play."
Alexandar Georgiev settled in nicely after the Devils' first goal took a funny bounce into the net off his goalmask; he finished with 33 saves in his second start of the season. Pavel Buchnevich and Brady Skjei picked up helpers on DeAngelo's early goal, while the newly constituted line of Fast, Ryan Strome and Brendan Smith combined on the late one - Smith's third point in four games this season - which came 2:22 after second intermission and drew the Rangers within 3-2.
New Jersey got goals from five different players, including Blake Coleman, Kyle Palmieri (on a power play) and Miles Wood as they built up a 3-1 lead after DeAngelo's goal 6:20 into the game. Wood's tally came on a double deflection, the first one off the stick of Hughes, who picked up his first NHL point.
P.K. Subban finished the scoring into an empty net after Quinn had pulled Georgiev during a power play with just under four minutes still to play. Mackenzie Blackwood stopped 29 shots as the Devils snapped their six-game season-opening skid.
"From a goalie's perspective, the other team got a couple bounces that weren't in our favor," said Georgiev, of whose 33 saves, 12 came on New Jersey power plays. "I think it was a tight game for the full 60 minutes."
As yet, for all the penalty minutes that were handed down over the course of those 60 minutes, the Rangers had legitimate questions as to why there weren't a few more. Specifically to Taylor Hall, who was called for three minors in the game and served a fourth on behalf of his team, but who the Rangers felt skirted by with merely a minor after the flying elbow he launched at Adam Fox near the seven-minute mark of the second period.
It happened as the Rangers rookie was carrying a puck around his own net, and thankfully, Fox saw Hall coming at the last moment, helping turn the contact into more of a glancing blow. But it was enough to send Fox back to the room to enter concussion protocol, which he passed before returning to the game.
"I picked up the puck, turned and obviously saw him gain a little speed, and tried to brace myself," Fox said. "It happened pretty quick. I'm just happy I was able to get back out."
Quinn said simply: "I thought it was a five-minute major." Asked if he had insight into why it wasn't, he replied, "You're asking the wrong guy."
Still, Fox sees no reason he wouldn't be in Friday night's lineup in Washington, a night when the Rangers may never before have been so eager to see a back-to-back on their schedule. After a stretch in which they played just one game in a span of 11 days and felt like all they were doing was practicing, they just want the chance to find a little rhythm against opponents.
"We just looked more in sync, we looked more energetic, we were harder to play against. We've just got to keep building on it," Quinn said. "We get to play again tomorrow. The one thing I like, when we did play the Winnipeg game and then the Ottawa game (in a span of three days to start the season), there was a big level of improvement from one game to the next. Hopefully we can make that next step playing back-to-back."