The image of that puck coming to a dead stop on the goal line in the early stages of the second period - half of it, not enough of it, across - wound up being both a pivotal play and a suitable snapshot of the Rangers' return to Madison Square Garden on Monday night: They kept on coming at the Nashville Predators, and all they seemed to need was that one last little touch that would finish it off.
And when the Predators got a couple looks the other way they did not waste them, meaning that a game that was largely controlled by the Rangers bestowed its two points on the Preds, a 5-2 Blueshirts defeat in their first game back on Broadway off a weeklong West Coast trip.
Chris Kreider and Artemi Panarin each scored for the Rangers - Panarin for the fifth consecutive game - while Mika Zibanejad had two assists for his third straight multi-point match, in which the Blueshirts peppered Juuse Saros with 41 shots on net, one shy of their season high. It was a one-goal game in the final minutes and the Rangers were pushing for the equalizer with Alexandar Georgiev on the bench, until a pair of Predators put shots into the empty net to provide the flattering final score.
"I'm really proud of our guys the way we competed," said David Quinn "To have the energy we had and to compete as hard as we did 60 minutes says an awful lot. We just weren't able to capitalize on our chances, which was disappointing."
The Predators are one of only two NHL teams, along with the Capitals, whose leading scorer is a defenseman, and on this night Nashville received four of its five goals from blueliners, including a pair from leading scorer Roman Josi, one of them a 200-foot heave off his own back wall into the Rangers' vacated cage.
That was followed shortly thereafter by a 180-foot shot from Ryan Ellis, whose presence in the game was highly questionable given the lunging elbow he threw into Pavel Buchnevich's head during the course of a combustible second period, a hit that had the Ranger winger off in concussion protocol (he later returned to the game) while the Nashville blueliner sat for a minor penalty.
"A dangerous hit for sure," Quinn called it. "I'm sure the League will look at it and handle the situation appropriately."
Mattias Ekholm - a surprise participant in this game after the Predators went without him on Saturday night because of an illness - also scored for the visitors, coming after Rocco Grimaldi's first-period strike aided by an assist and net traffic from Josi.
"For the most part of the game, I thought we played with pretty good structure, and as a team we were supporting each other. That's how we were able to have the puck a lot," said Marc Staal. "We just weren't able to bury one. We had this opportunities to get one and couldn't bury it, and they did, and that kind of was the story."
Zibanejad led everyone with seven shots against Saros; Kreider and Brady Skjei had six apiece, Buchnevich and Jacob Trouba five. Those were season highs for Zibanejad (tied) and Kreider, and a career high for Buchnevich, but Saros stopped 39 of them in total to set a season high of his own.
"You could use it as a crutch," Staal said when asked about the Rangers' recent travel, which put them in from California in the early-morning hours Sunday, "but I thought we had a good mindset going into the game, I thought everyone was on board and ready to go. It's hard not to get rewarded for that."
A lot of that had to do with what transpired in the second period, when the game took something of a left turn. In the first, Kreider answered Grimaldi's early goal by scoring at 11:10, after Zibanejad had stripped Ryan Johansen in neutral ice and blown past Dante Fabbro to set him up. That was Kreider's eighth goal of the season and just one indication of how engaged he was from the early moments of a game in which he would play 19:50.
"Big night for Chris tonight," Quinn said afterward. "I thought he played very well.
But after the Rangers were unable to tack one on before first intermission - one shift toward the end encompassed a full two of continuous play in the Nashville end - they thought they had the go-ahead 2:20 into the second. Coming out of a penalty kill, the Rangers happened to have the loaded-up line of Panarin, Zibanejad and Kreider on the ice, and it was Panarin's shot from the right side that had Saros beat but hit flush off the goalpost, caroming into the back of the goaltender and toward the line. The Rangers believed the carom came off the netting; referee Jean Hebert, in this instance at least, wasn't fooled.
After that, the temperature rose, fueled by Ellis' elbow that caught Buchnevich's head - called a minor - followed shortly thereafter by the series of crosschecks Fabbro let loose on a flat-on-his-back Jesper Fast, who somehow was deemed guilty of holding in the exchange.
Nashville coach Peter Laviolette called the game at that point "just disjointed a little bit," but his team seemed to thrive on it - twice they scored with three defensemen on the ice because one had just exited the penalty box, Josi at 10:16 after Ellis' elbowing minor was up, then Ekholm at 15:23 when he was set up with a breakaway after his own penalty for three crosschecks into Kreider's back had expired.
"The more we spent time in their end, I thought we maybe sold out a little bit too much for offense," Quinn said. "I think when you sustain some offensive zone time, you kind of lose sight of, you've still got to play hockey. And I thought that cost us."
This was the first time in a month exactly that the Rangers had dropped back-to-back games, and given the way they played in this one it's likely they wished the Maple Leafs could have been ready to start at about 10 o'clock on Monday night. Instead, that'll have to wait until Friday, when the Original Six rivals meet for the first time this season in the second game of this three-game Broadway homestand.
"We had the legs, we were going," Zibanejad said after Monday's game. "Just couldn't finish it off tonight."