By Jim Cerny, newyorkrangers.com
For the first time in eight games, the Rangers scored the initial goal of a contest on Sunday afternoon, but that was not enough to overcome three unanswered goals from Philadelphia in a 4-2 loss to the Flyers at Madison Square Garden.
Despite the defeat, the Rangers still hold seventh place in the Eastern Conference with 66 points and maintain their six-point lead in a bid for a playoff spot because of Washington’s victory over Buffalo. The Flyers cotinue lead the East with 83 points, and have won all four meetings with the Blueshirts this season.
“I am frustrated for the team because I think they worked their (butts) off,” said Rangers head coach John Tortorella. “My belief in the team is getting stronger. It is about results and it is about winning, but we’re doing the right things. We just haven’t been able to do that (win games) consistently, especially the second half of the year.”
Adding to the pain of Sunday’s defeat was the fact that star winger Marian Gaborik was forced from the game due to a concussion. Gaborik informed Tortorella that he did not feel well enough to continue at the conclusion of the first period, and a concussion was later diagnosed by the team’s medical staff.
“I don’t know when it happened, and I don’t know how it happened,” said Tortorella, who added that he anticipated the need to call up a forward from the Connecticut Whale in time for the team’s upcoming road trip to Carolina and Washington this week.
Without Gaborik, the Rangers still played a very strong game against an elite opponent on Sunday, but they could not completely wipe out the two-goal deficit they had faced entering the third period.
Derek Stepan — who produced a big-time effort along with linemates Wojtek Wolski and Mats Zuccarello — scored his 16th goal of the season 5:28 into the third to bring the Rangers within 3-2 on the scoreboard, but despite a 15-3 shots advantage in the final stanza, that is as close as the home team would get.
Philadelphia’s Kris Versteeg scored into an empty net with 45.3 seconds remaining to finalize the result against the Blueshirts on Sunday, and goaltender Brian Boucher finished with 37 saves.
“We worked hard, were getting our opportunities, but (Sunday) was about not being able to bury that next one,” said alternate captain Ryan Callahan. “Today I thought we played a full 60 minutes and played a great game, but at the end of the day we didn’t get the two points we needed.”
The Rangers saw their 1-0 lead evaporate into a 1-1 tie after one period of play and into a 3-1 deficit after 40 minutes as the Flyers scored three unanswered goals bridging the first two periods.
Wolski, who recorded four of the Blueshirts’ 14 shots in the first period, opened the scoring 12:43 into the game. Charging through the slot, he collected the puck as it caromed off the back boards on a Ryan McDonagh shot and promptly squeezed it through Boucher’s pads to give the Rangers a 1-0 lead.
The goal was Wolski’s first in 11 games, and his 10th overall on the season.
Just four minutes later, however, the Flyers pulled even when Jeff Carter scored his 27th goal, deflecting Claude Giroux’s back-to-the-net shot from right wing past Henrik Lundqvist at 16:42.
That twosome would team up to give Philadelphia its first lead of the game midway through the second period, but not before the Rangers had a prime chance to snap the tie first.
Brandon Dubinsky made a gorgeous move out of the left-wing corner and found Callahan alone in the low slot with a perfect pass. Boucher, however, made a huge right-pad save on Callahan’s in-close shot at 12:06, and less than a minute later Philly scored to take a 2-1 lead.
Giroux netted his 20th goal at 12:52, rifling the puck high into the cage as Lundqvist was splayed on the ice after making a diving stick-save to rob Carter only seconds before. Carter stayed with the loose puck on the rebound and passed it back out to Giroux from behind the goal line for the easy score.
Philadelphia increased its lead to two goals before the middle period was over when Daniel Carcillo somehow managed to slip a soft shot underneath Lundqvist with 3:34 remaining in the period.
“You can’t get down by two that late in the second period to a team like this,” said defenseman Michael Sauer. “We can’t put ourselves in that kind of situation, especially this time of year when teams crack down even more defensively.”
As has been their calling card, the Rangers played a dominating third period again on Sunday, and came tantalizingly close to pulling even on several occasions — with Stepan and Artem Anisimov having the best chances to tie the game on prime chances from the doorstep — but Boucher would not give in.
“Everyone on the bench was saying that we were going to tie this game up because we were all over them,” said Callahan. “We spent so much time in their end in the third period and had so many chances on the doorstep that we did not convert on. You could just feel it on the bench that we were going to get the next one, but it didn’t happen.”
With a day off on Monday, the Rangers will look to regroup before they play an important road game against the eighth-place Hurricanes in Raleigh, N.C. on Tuesday night.