EDMONTON -- At first it looked like the Rangers would be buried by the start. By the end it seemed as though only the final horn, and not the opponent, could possibly stop them.
All in all, New Year's Eve got pretty wild in Edmonton. The Rangers managed to pack about a year's worth of emotional swings into their final 60 minutes of 2019: They came in torrents in the third period on Tuesday night, scoring five times in the final 20 minutes and 26 seconds of the game. But in the end it still left them a whisker short of what would have been a comeback of historic proportion.
That was because on this night, a slow start and a "sideways" second period resulted in the Rangers spotting the Oilers the first six goals of the game - every one of which the home team would need to hold off a furious, and captivating, Blueshirts charge.
And so the Rangers lost, 7-5, unable to pilfer a point out of what one player described as a Jekyll and Hyde game, but by no means did they leave emptyhanded. A team that just five weeks ago came back from four goals down to win a game in the cauldron of Montreal, mounted a rally in Edmonton that had just about everyone in the building believing that a miracle was in the making, and had them heading off to their next stop on this Western Canadian road trip feeling in a position to start that next game the way they finished this one.
"I think we displayed a lot of character -- obviously this hurts, but we give ourselves a chance there," said Chris Kreider. "We'd like to come out with at least a point, but that's a great push there in the third."
"Not a way to start a hockey game, to get down like that," added Mika Zibanejad, "but I think that shows the character we've got in this room."
No NHL team has ever come back from a six-goal deficit to win. Down 6-0 approaching second intermission, it was Kreider's goal in the final half-minute before the buzzer that in retrospect got everything started, but because it trimmed the Rangers' deficit to five goals it felt at the time more like stopping the bleeding than turning the tide.
But once the third period began, Artemi Panarin seemed determined to put the Rangers on his shoulders, and his teammates came charging right along with him.
Panarin had a hand in four of the Rangers' five scores, a goal and three assists, the first setup laying it on a tee for Kreider to end the middle period, the next to Ryan Strome and the third for a Strome shot that took a tip off Marc Staal - a bounce that cut a six-goal Oiler lead in half and had Edmonton's home rink thick with unease.
Panarin compounded that by scoring unassisted to make it a 6-4 game with 7:53 still to play. And when Zibanejad fired one home with 3:45 remaining, not-so-suddenly it was a one-goal game and it felt at that point like the Rangers were playing against the clock and not the Oilers. That is until Kailer Yamamoto, making his season debut for Edmonton, won a footrace to a puck in the Ranger end with nothing between him and an empty net, squashing this epic comeback bid 1:07 from the end.
"We just kept playing," David Quinn said. "We just kept playing, and you know, I'm proud of our guys for doing that."
Panarin now has 55 points on the season, up to sixth in the NHL; 10 of those points have come in the last three games alone, the first Ranger to string together three consecutive games of three points or better since John Ogrodnick in 1989-90. Strome, meanwhile, scored for the fourth time in four games, Zibanejad for the ninth time in nine.
At the same time, the Rangers held Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl - the NHL's No. 1 and No. 2 scorers - to a combined two points in the game, and on just about any other night all of this would add up to a resounding victory. "But you just can't have the start that we had," Quinn said. "That's obvious."
By the time Yamamoto scored it seemed like ages since James Neal had completed his ninth career hat trick, and since the Oilers had been anywhere close to controlling a game that, in the end, they led for 59 minutes and 49 seconds. The first of Neal's three goals came just 11 seconds into the match; he scored again on a tip at 8:46, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins did the same to make it a 3-0 after only 11:13 had been played. Neal and Nugent-Hopkins finished with four points apiece.
But what really hurt the Rangers were the six man-advantages they allowed to the NHL's No. 1 power play, all of which came in the first two periods and three of which the Oilers converted. Draisaitl and Neal scored power-play goals 12 seconds apart to make it 5-0 in the second period, when Ryan Lindgren was somehow assessed an extra minor in a dust-up with Jujhar Khaira, then the Rangers were stunningly slapped with a bench minor before the post-goal faceoff even occurred.
"We don't have very good start, and then we get into penalty trouble, and we never really gave ourselves a chance to play 5-on-5. And the minute we did, we started playing the right way, and we're able to tilt the ice." Kreider said. "That second period, obviously it goes a little bit sideways. But that was a hell of a response.
"I think early on in the year, something like that happens and we would probably fall apart a little bit. But we showed a lot of resolve here."
"We talked about just not being selfish and playing hard in the third period," Staal said. "I thought we did a good job of that. We made a game of it."
The Rangers have two stops remaining on this swing through Western Canada, continuing on Thursday in Calgary against a Flames team that underwent a similar, if slightly less dramatic, New Year's Eve rollercoaster on home ice: down 4-0 to the Blackhawks and cutting it to a one-goal game before an empty-netter sealed it.
"We showed some things we're going to need moving forward," Quinn said of his Blueshirts. "That being said, we can't lose sight of the fact we can't start a game like that. We've got to build on that ending and carry that over into Calgary."