The scoresheet and the standings will say, very much in black and white, that the Rangers lost a game on Tuesday night. But David Quinn was among those at Madison Square Garden who saw in color the 60 minutes his Blueshirts brought to their home rink against the defending Stanley Cup champs, and came away only reinforced in his belief that as his young group of Rangers comes along, context matters.
"Obviously it is all about winning or losing," the Head Coach said after Tuesday's game, "but you also have to take into consideration: Do you give yourself a chance to win? And that was a big-boy hockey game right there."
In the 6,500th regular-season game in Rangers history, the Blueshirts and the Blues met one another with an up-tempo, physical stalemate that lasted right up until the midway point of the third period, when Brayden Schenn got a bounce off a skate to score the tiebreaking goal, and the Blueshirts dropped a tug-o-war with last year's Cup winners and this year's Western Conference frontrunners, 3-1 on Tuesday night at the Garden.
"There wasn't a lot of room out there. There was a playoff feel to it," Quinn said. "Unfortunate a bounce ends up in the back of our net, which was the difference in the game. A game of that magnitude where there was such little room and not many scoring chances, the margin for error is so small, and unfortunately we were on the wrong end of it."
Quinn added: "I would venture to say three months ago we couldn't even play in a game like that and have any type of chance."
Mika Zibanejad continued his torrid run with another goal in this one - his ninth in the last nine games and his 33rd of the season, taking over the team lead - this time on the end of a terrific passing play from Pavel Buchnevich and Ryan Strome to stake the Rangers to a first-period lead. And the Blueshirts allowed only 21 shots to reach Alexandar Georgiev on this night -- but Colton Parayko got one by him on a second-period power play, Schenn pinballed one of his skate blade in the third, and Jayden Schwartz sealed matters in the final seconds with Georgiev at the bench on shot No. 22 for the Blues.
It was Schenn's fifth consecutive game with a goal, and St. Louis' eighth straight win, matching the season-long streak they put together back in December. The Rangers, meanwhile, find themselves fighting a three-game skid for the first time since the start of 2020 - but while no Ranger would argue that there are any points to waste with their aim affixed on a postseason charge, this one felt different than their weekend set against Philadelphia because, very simply, it was different.
"I thought the day-and-a-half off really did us well, and we came out with a lot of energy," said Quinn, who even before the game had said he expected to see a reenergized group. "I thought we were physical, I thought we took away time and space against a very heavy, hard hockey team."
"I liked our effort. I liked our response after last game," said Marc Staal. "I thought we carried the play for a lot of it. It's a 1-1 game going into the third period, they get kind of a lucky bounce and we just weren't able to find one."
They certainly pressed for it, and they certainly came close to it. Quinn had already put Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin together in the third period just before St. Louis went ahead, but it was Kaapo Kakko who had the best looks to get the Blueshirts the big goal they needed late - the rookie was turned back both times by Jordan Binnington (25 saves), and both times right from Binnington's front porch.
"He's learning: The more often you go there, the more chances you're going to have and the more goals you can score," Quinn said of Kakko, whose first chance came in a tie game early in the third from a Brett Howden feed, the second on a rebound with under three minutes left. "It's got to be part of your everyday repertoire, it's got to be in your hockey DNA, and he's learning that."
The Rangers now have hit the midpoint of a four-game Garden homestand that concludes with Metropolitan Division matches, against Washington on Thursday and the Devils on Saturday night. The Blueshirts will be regretting their missed chance on Tuesday to gain some ground in the standings - perhaps slightly less so because at the same time, the Islanders were getting trounced by Montreal on home ice, leaving the Rangers at the end of the night still four points behind both the current Wild Card teams, the Isles and Blue Jackets.
On Tuesday night there was not much more than that to regret.
"I mean, they're the Stanley Cup champions, and they're that for a reason. And we saw that today," Jesper Fast said of St. Louis. "They play smart, they have good structure, they play good defense. And we gave them a good game.
"Unfortunate bounce there on the goal. But I think we battled hard, and if we keep playing that way I think we're going to win a lot of games going forward."
Zibanejad's goal came on a power play 12:26 into the game, after a shift on which Brendan Smith first drove the puck to the net for the game's first scoring chance on Binnington, then made a play at the line to draw the game's first penalty.
"I thought Brendan Smith had a really good hockey game today," Quinn said.
Zibanejad cashed it in after Buchnevich had spun away from Marco Scandella in the left corner to feed the right dot for Strome, who saw Zibanejad wide open on the other side to punch home his 33rd goal, stretching his career high in just his 53rd game, and giving Buchnevich his 40th point of the year.
But Zibanejad had a puck bounce on him during a second-period penalty kill, which allowed Parayko to move in for a game-tying wrister 2:35 into a middle period that, incidentally, saw only eight faceoffs. The tie lasted more than 27 minutes until an innocent-enough cycle in the Rangers' zone saw Schenn swing one into the blue paint, where it found the goaltender's skate.
"That's hockey," Fast said. "Unfortunately it didn't go our way today."
"It hurts more, the position we're in at this time of year, to lose a game like that where we played well," said Staal. "But it's going to happen. We've just got to take pride and keep moving on."