At worst, the Rangers played one of the elite teams in the league at even terms Sunday afternoon at Madison Square Garden, and at best, the Rangers were the better team much of the contest. However when all was said and done, goaltender Antti Niemi was the difference as the San Jose Sharks edged the Rangers 1-0.
Niemi was sensational, stopping all 41 shots he faced, earning his fourth shutout of the season for a Sharks team that extended its winning streak to six straight games, and earned its 45th victory, and 96th and 97th points, overall this season. The Sharks have now had four winning streaks of six games so far this season.
The loss was New York's third in its last four games; and it came on a day that Metropolitan Division rivals Philadelphia and Washington both won, and one day after Columbus earned a clutch shootout victory. The Rangers now sit in fourth place in the division, though they do own the final Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference.
"It's frustrating because this loss is so painful in so many ways," said Henrik Lundqvist postgame. "We had so many open nets, so many chances to get back in this game. We go out there and play a really strong game against one of the best teams in the league, but it's hard to be positive about things when you don't win."
Lundqvist was solid between the pipes for the Rangers despite the loss. He made 28 saves, but failed to move past Mike Richter as the franchise all-time wins leader among goaltenders. The two remain tied atop the all-time list with 301 victories apiece.
When asked after the game if there was a moral victory to be had because his team played so well, Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault said flatly, "No. Right now we need points."
All looked good for the Rangers the first half of the first period. They recorded the first seven shots of the game, had a distinct territorial advantage, and forced Niemi into making a string of difficult saves. However they could not find the back of the net, and then things took a turn for the worst, ironically, when awarded a power play at the 10:58 mark of the opening period.
Instead of capitalizing on their momentum, the Rangers--who had a 14-3 shots advantage at the start of the power play--surrendered five shorthanded shots during Scott Hannan's penalty, and worse, allowed a shorthanded goal by Logan Couture at 11:48. From that point on, San Jose played New York at even terms the rest of the period, and probably had the better of the play during the scoreless second period.
Couture took advantage of a Mats Zuccarello turnover near the Rangers blue line and finished with a breakaway goal, beating Lundqvist with a neat backhand--his 19th goal of the season, second shorthanded. It was also the seventh shorthanded goal the Rangers have given up this season; and it was a clear dividing mark in Sunday's contest.
"We lose the game 1-0 and they get a goal there when we have the PP, the puck is bouncing a little bit, my bad maybe, but we still could have won this game," explained Zuccarello. "At the end of the day it's not good enough. We have to put the puck in the net."
It's not that the Rangers did not have their chances to pull even, there just were not as many as had occurred earlier in the game. Niemi made a sparkling save with his left pad, bursting across the crease to deny Derick Brassard's point-blank one-timer off a Marty St. Louis pass with 40 seconds to play in the first period. Brassard looked to the rafters at The Garden after missing the Grade A chance to tie the game, with replays showing that had he lifted the puck he had a a lot of open net on the right side of the cage. It was the second time Niemi had robbed Brassard in the game, already having made a diving save on Brassard's backhand shot off a rebound seven and a half minutes into play.
"He played really well," Lundqvist said of Niemi, who is tied for the league lead in wins with 34. "But it felt like that there were some situations where it was right there for us and we just couldn't grab it."
Controversy took hold of the game late in the second period when an apparent Carl Hagelin goal was not allowed following a lengthy video review. Hagelin made a strong move to the net on a wraparound, Niemi seemingly made the save, and the whistle blew. However the referees called for a video review, and replays did show the puck being brought back out over the goal line by Niemi, but the video review was called inconclusive and the on-ice no-goal call stood.
The fans, and several Rangers players--a few who had to be restrained by associate coach Scott Arniel from screaming at the officials--erupted in anger after the call was announced. When the period ended alternate captain Marc Staal remained on the ice for a long conversation with one of the referees.
"I didn't see much because I wrapped it and kept going towards the corner, but (Benoit) Pouliot was in the crease and saw the puck was in, plus it was pretty obvious on the video review, too, that the puck was in," explained Hagelin. "In all fairness they couldn't see the puck with the camera. If the ref had been closer to the net he would have been able to see right away. We were just unlucky."
In the third period there was no controversy, just sensational play from Niemi, who made stellar saves on Hagelin again, Pouliot, and John Moore as the Rangers picked up their level of play to more resemble the first period. Niemi, who made 20 saves in the first period, finished strong with 14 third-period stops.
After their one-game stop at home, the Rangers are right back out on the road this week, with games in Ottawa on Tuesday, Columbus on Friday, and New Jersey on Saturday.
"Still a lot of games left," stated Brad Richards by his locker postgame. "Frustration is useless right now because it's a clean slate every day, and you just get right back to work (Monday)."