Looking to carry the good feeling from Sunday's 7-2 thrashing of the Anaheim Ducks into their Stanley Cup Final rematch with the Los Angeles Kings Tuesday at Madison Square Garden, the Rangers instead stubbed their toe, losing 4-2 to the team that also beat them for last year's championship.
The loss was only New York's second in regulation over the past 11 games (8-2-1). It also marked the first time in the past eleven contests that the Rangers surrendered more than two goals in a game. The Blueshirts last allowed more than a pair of goals in a February 28th 4-2 loss to the Flyers in Philadelphia.
"It's hard to explain," said head coach Alain Vigneault after the defeat. "We were second on the puck, we were second in our one on one (battles), and our execution wasn't what it needed to be against such a strong opponent, and we paid the price for it."
Cam Talbot played well enough--with 31 saves in goal--but the Rangers did not match the Kings level of commitment and execution nearly all night in the teams' first meeting on Garden ice since New York's Game Four 2-1 win over L.A. back on June 9 in the Cup Final a year ago.
"It's obviously a tough one for us tonight," said Talbot. "They came out ready to play. They had a lot on the line tonight. They were tough to slow down. They just seemed to be finding the space in our zone tonight."
The Rangers started quickly Tuesday night, scoring less than a minute into the game, but the Kings slowly and decidedly took the game over while carrying a 2-1 lead into the second intermission.
J.T. Miller and Mats Zuccarello teamed up to put the Blueshirts on the scoreboard just 51 seconds into play. Miller used his speed to gain entry into the offensive zone, then his size to win a pair of puck battles behind the Kings net, before sliding the puck into the slot where Zuccarello corralled the disc and zipped a shot past Jonathan Quick.
The goal was Zuccarello's 13th of the season, while the assist gave Miller four points (2-2-4) in a three-game point-scoring streak.
New York nearly doubled its advantage 6:45 into the first period when a seemingly-unsteady Quick juggled a Kevin Hayes right-wing shot, with the puck flipping back towards the net before the Kings goaltender snatched it out of mid air.
"We had a good start, we get a goal, but they just kind of turned the tide quick, I'm not really sure what they did," explained alternate captain Dan Girardi, who logged a team-high 21:52 worth of ice-time and blocked a team-high three shots. "I think we had a good chance to take a little life out of their playoff hopes, but they came out with a great effort and very desperate--they're fighting for their lives over there--but we needed to have a better effort."
Talbot, who would stop 16 of 17 first-period shots, made his best save at 9:37 when he stoned Trevor Lewis with a one-on-one left-pad save after a Rangers turnover. However at 10:38 Los Angeles tied the game when defenseman Robyn Regehr somehow snuck a long shot past Talbot's blocker after the puck first glanced off Rangers defenseman Keith Yandle in front.
The Rangers showed grit in the opening period--Tanner Glass recorded four of the team's 17 registered hits--but the Kings played with desperation befitting a team fighting for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. That carried over into the second period when it seemed that L.A. had the puck in the Rangers end of the ice most of the period, though they only managed to outshoot the Blueshirts 14-9 in the middle twenty.
One of those shots, though, found its way into the back of the Rangers net. Former Blueshirt Marian Gaborik--who hurt his ex-teammates with a pair of clutch goals in last spring's Stanley Cup Final---dished out some more punishment the Rangers way when he potted a wide-open gimme 4:35 into the second, his 23rd goal of the season.
A sharp Talbot made a variety of solid stops on tips and deflections and straight-on shots the rest of the period, keeping the deficit at two. That would change early in the third period when L.A. scores twice in under six minutes to pull away with a 4-1 lead.
Jeff Carter netted his 26th on a virtual slam-dunk just 65 seconds into the final period of play, and Jake Muzzin scored his eighth after a pretty feed by Anze Kopitar at 5:28 to send the Rangers on their way to defeat.
Kevin Hayes did score the 14th goal of his rookie season with 3:44 remaining in regulation to cut the deficit 4-2, but it was too little, too late, for the Blueshirts.
"It's frustrating all the way through," stated center Derek Stepan. "We just didn't have it tonight. You don't ever want to lose any hockey games. Tonight we just didn't have it right from the start."
On a more positive note, injured goaltender Henrik Lundqvist took part in the morning skate Tuesday and afterwards said his goal was to play sometime this upcoming weekend. He is expected to practice again on Wednesday, though he likely will not dress Thursday night when the Rangers next play, in Ottawa against the Senators. The Rangers follow with games in Boston against the Bruins on Saturday afternoon and at The Garden Sunday against the Washington Capitals.