For the third time in nine days, the teams were same. But the matchup this time was altogether different.
The Rangers and Islanders concluded their three-game midseason mini-series on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden, but when you remove Artemi Panarin from the mix it is bound to throw the balance of power out of whack before a puck is even dropped. And while the Rangers did a great deal to fill the void of their leading scorer's absence with an upper-body injury - for large swaths of this game they were the better team 5-on-5 - it wasn't enough on Tuesday night to avoid a 4-2 loss to the Islanders.
The Blueshirts have arrived at their break now, nine days without a game before they reconvene to start a home-and-home with the Red Wings on Jan. 31 at the Garden. David Quinn said afterward that the Rangers are not concerned about Panarin's injury affecting him long-term, but the winger and every one of his teammates will get a chance to rest up and report back fresh ahead of a packed schedule in February and March.
And it also will give Chris Kreider a thoroughly deserved trip to the NHL All-Star Game. The Rangers said after Tuesday's game that Kreider would step in to replace Panarin -- the announcement coming on a night when Kreider scored yet another goal and nearly led his teammates in filling Panarin's shoes against the Islanders, too.
"Obviously it would have been a lot nicer to leave after a win tonight, but I think these nine days will do us good," said Mika Zibanejad. "We have a lot of hockey left to play, and the way we're trending -- get this break here, come back, regroup, and just go at it when we come back."
Panarin had been battling this upper-body ailment since late last week, and had skipped a pair of practices to go easy on it; but it wasn't until he did not emerge for pregame warmups on Tuesday night that it became clear he was unavailable against the Isles -- whose last visit to the Garden, just eight days earlier, had ended in a 6-2 Ranger rout behind five points from Panarin. Quinn said Panarin chances of playing had been "50-50" into the early evening, but "by the end of it, it just didn't seem like the right thing to do."
Asked how different the Rangers are without Panarin, Quinn put it succinctly: "Very."
"It's a blow," the Head Coach added, "but I was confident we could win this hockey game without him, and we could have."
If not for Thomas Greiss, who stepped into the Islanders' nets and made 40 saves after the Rangers had burned Semyon Varlamov for nine goals on 63 shots in the first two meetings. The 40 stops were a season high for the German netminder who improved to 3-0-1 in his last four starts.
In all, the Rangers outshot the Isles 42-18 in the game - the 42 matching the Rangers' season high, and the 18 matching a season low. But Greiss had 30 saves before second intermission as the Isles built up a three-goal lead, with help from an early second-period crossbar and a late second-period replay review.
"It's disappointing, because I thought we played pretty well, and obviously the result isn't what we need it to be," said Quinn. "It was just one of those nights: they were very opportunistic and we weren't."
"I don't think we've had a lot of games like that where we've peppered the goalie and really outshot our opponent and haven't been able to fill the net," Kreider said. "That's hockey sometimes."
Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich were the goal-scorers in the third period for the Rangers, both on power plays as the Rangers poured it on with Alexandar Georgiev on the bench for much of the final six minutes of the night. For Kreider, it made it 10 goals in 16 games heading into the break, and now 17 on the season - 11 shy of his career high with 32 games to go.
Josh Bailey had a goal and an assist for the Isles, who snapped a three-game skid behind goals from Anthony Beauvillier, Anders Lee and Brock Nelson. Bailey and Beauvillier scored on first-period power plays after the Rangers had dominated the opening 10 minutes, and Nelson's 20th of the season built the visitors' lead up to 4-0 at the 3:13 mark of the third.
That goal only accentuated what had come at the end of the second, when Ryan Strome appeared to have made it a 3-1 game 2:02 before the period finished. The Islanders bench challenged the play for offside, and replays showed Tony DeAngelo's zone entry coming a hair after Jesper Fast's back skate was knocked into the air by a backchecking Nelson's boot. Officials took the goal off the board.
"I thought there was a gray area with it; apparently they didn't," Quinn said of the linesmen reviewing the play.
"I really liked our start like, I thought we were ready to play," the Coach went on. "I thought our first power play was really good -- we did everything but score. … Then I thought, boy, the last seven or eight minutes of the second we really had it going.
"And then we get the goal waved off, which was deflating. And then obviously the fourth one was tough to overcome."
Not that the Rangers didn't make it interesting: Buchnevich and Kreider scored on each end of a Scott Mayfield double minor for spearing Brendan Lemieux, making it a two-goal game with 4:28 still left.
"Just ran out of time," Kreider said.
At the end of it, the Rangers could at least look back on a winning record between their New Year's trip to Western Canada and the All-Star break, which included taking two out of three from their archrivals in the midseason mini-series. They entered their break disappointed with the last step they took, but not with the path they feel they're walking.
"Our game is worlds better than it was at the beginning of the year, I think we've gotten so much better," Kreider said. "I don't think the scoreline is indicative of how well we played tonight. I thought we did some things pretty well, but like I said a few lapses against good teams and they're going to capitalize. We've got to shore up those things, but I do think we're worlds better than we were earlier in the year."