ST. LOUIS -- For one night, at least, time was never on the Rangers' side. The Blues don't give opponents much of it, in any area of the rink or on any night, and given how dominant the defending Stanley Cup champions have been in their home rink for the past month, it was the wrong time to see a visit to St. Louis on the schedule.
In the bigger picture, time remains the Rangers' ally because the Rangers remain one of the youngest teams in the National Hockey League, and on Saturday night they faced a veteran St. Louis club that only last season reached the pinnacle that the Blueshirts, and every other team, aspire to. And what transpired over 60 minutes on Saturday night had its bright spots and its blemishes, and ultimately proved something of an object lesson for the Rangers against a team that plays what Henrik Lundqvist called "very smart hockey, mature hockey."
"If you just watch them, they just don't beat themselves, and that's what we've touched on from day one. And we're getting better at it," David Quinn said afterward in assessing his team's 5-2 loss to the defending champs, which was a one-goal game midway through.
These young Rangers were even younger still on Saturday night, with Marc Staal banged-up and sitting out this game, giving way to Libor Hajek, the rookie who had been out since suffering a knee injury on Dec. 5.
And they wound up getting a stellar night from their youngest line of all, one that Quinn called "our best line tonight," with Fil Chytil leading the way with a goal and an assist and a dynamic game in all three zones, along with his linemates Kaapo Kakko and Brett Howden - 20, 18 and 21 years old. Chytil scored on that line's first shift to stake the Blueshirts to an early lead, and Howden buried Chytil's setup in the second period to stem the Blues' momentum and draw the visitors within a goal.
In all, four of the six points recorded by Rangers in this game went to players age 21 or younger - Chytil, Howden, and Ryan Lindgren.
The Blues, meanwhile, got goals from five different players, including defenseman Robert Bortuzzo's first of the season and David Perron's team-leading 20th, and 10 different Blues made the scoresheet as the Western Conference leaders won for the eighth straight time on home ice, where they have not lost since Dec. 7.
"As I stand here right now without watching the film, obviously we need to be better, but against a team that won the Stanley Cup last year I think we've made progress," Quinn said. "We've just got to keep building on that. We've got to shake this off and be ready Monday."
That's when the Rangers begin a stretch of four games leading up to the All-Star break, three of them on home ice - where they have a four-game winning streak going - and, by a quirk of the schedule, three of the four against the Islanders, beginning on Monday night at Madison Square Garden.
But before they headed home, all around the Rangers' dressing room on Saturday players were remarking about the patience the Blues possess, how, in Brady Skjei's words, "They wait for you to make mistakes, and they've got plenty of skill to take advantage of those." Behind the frustration of a loss in which the Rangers held a lead and spent a good part of the night in a tight game with the West's top team, their frustration felt like growing pains, and Chris Kreider was adamant that he did not want the lessons contained in this defeat to be wasted as soon as the schedule moves on to the next game.
"That's something that I tried to harp on in between periods in the room: You play a team that plays like that, that is playoff-style hockey," Kreider told NYRangers.com afterward. "You want to play games that matter down the stretch? That's what it's going to be like. They're going to defend well, they're going to stay over the top of you, they're going to take away time and space. So it's got to be getting in battles, getting pucks out here, getting pucks out there, and playing a smart, patient game.
"There's a ton of good lessons that can be learned from a game like that, because that is obviously a very good opponent and they've had a ton of success. But again, if we want to play games that matter, we've got to learn how to play in those tight-checking games: You play simple, you play simple, you play simple, and eventually you're going to get your looks."
In fairness, Chytil wasn't made to wait long to get this game's first good look, scoring just 1:34 in after hauling a puck across three lines and firing through Alex Pietrangelo as soon as he hit the left circle. His shot dipped beneath the glove of Jordan Binnington for Chytil's 11th goal in his 35th game this season - matching his total from 75 games as a rookie in 2018-19.
"He was visible every time he was out there," Quinn said. "He really played with a pace. I thought Kaapo was good, I thought Howden was good -- I thought that line was our best line tonight."
Still, when the Rangers couldn't compound their lead during a four-minute power play shortly thereafter - Micheal Haley drew it when Bortuzzo sticked him in between the eyes - it was a tie game as soon as Bortuzzo hopped out of the box and onto a breakaway pass from Ivan Barbashev.
St. Louis goals wrapped around first intermission - Vince Dunn's with 1:19 left in the first, and Perron's on a power play just 1:26 into the second - were staggering shots, but Quinn was encouraged by how they answered, scoring at 8:49. Chytil was the catalyst again, drawing defenders behind the goal line, then feeding an open Howden out front with such force that Howden couldn't avoid scoring even if he had wanted to.
At that point, Quinn said, "It was a hockey game - 3-2 in the middle of the second period. And then we make a tough mistake that we certainly can't make against a team like this, and it ends up in the back of our net."
That came when Zach Sanford burst free in the neutral zone for a 2-on-1 with Barbashev less than two minutes after Howden's goal. Another four minutes later, Jaden Schwartz used all the reach he owns to put a tap on Brayden Schenn's feed off a rush, and with five minutes left in the second period what had been a tight one-goal game suddenly was a 5-2 lead for the home team.
"It's almost not a single play where they beat themselves; they're so patient," said Lundqvist, who played in his 882nd career NHL game, tying John Vanbiesbrouck for ninth-most all-time among goaltenders. "They don't give us much in the middle, and they just wait for mistakes."
Said Kreider: "We've got to learn from what just happened. It can be a good thing or it can be a bad thing -- it's all about our response. We've got to take away the things that we need to take away from that game, and allow it to make us better."