UNIONDALE, N.Y. --- For the first time this season, the Rangers seem to be teetering dangerously close to losing their way.
Strange considering they still hold a seven-point lead in the Eastern Conference standings, but the team’s wayward 4-3 shootout loss to the Islanders reinforced their recent struggles.
Victimized by yet another poor start, the Blueshirts were forced to claw back from an early 2-0 hole to gain a point against the 13th-place Islanders. The dispiriting defeat was the team's third loss in four games.
Despite Monday’s trade deadline looming, coveted forward Rick Nash no longer seems to be the biggest concern.
“We’re one sloppy hockey club right now,” said coach John Tortorella.
Tortorella has been disappointed by the team’s dipping intensity level, and rightfully so. Despite his pleas to adopt a tougher mindset after a string of poor starts, the Ranger surrendered two goals in the first 8:42 of play.
Third-year center John Tavares set up Matt Moulson at 6:07 and former Ranger P.A. Parenteau minutes later as the desperate Islanders mounted a 2-0 edge against their division rivals.
“We talked about what it is to be a Ranger at practice yesterday, what was our team made of ... and I think we tackled it pretty good,” said center Brian Boyle. “But if felt the start wasn’t exactly what we wanted.”
The Rangers ailing power play, scoreless over the previous three games heading into Friday’s match, tallied twice and Marian Gaborik finished with a goal and an assist as the Rangers erased a 3-1 lead in the second on Derek Stepan's second-period equalizer.
But some mental mistakes proved costly -- Michael Del Zotto took a throwing the stick penalty that led to Parenteau’s second goal of the night -- and the Rangers did not have Henrik Lundqvist in goal to bail them out of a tie game in the shootout.
Islanders goaltender Evgeni Nabokov edged Martin Biron in the fourth round, blanking John Mitchell after Moulson’s wrist shot gave the Islanders a 2-1 edge.
Biron has given up three or more goals in his last four starts.
“I battled. I was fighting it a little bit,” Biron said. “I felt better as the game went on, but it’s not exactly where I wanted to be.”
With a prolonged stretch atop the standings, the Rangers are slowly learning the responsibility of first place -- a preferred position, obviously, but one that makes them a clear target for their opposition each night.
It's uncharted territory for a relatively young club that, in recent years, has had to battle its way into a playoff spot during the last week of the season rather than worry about retaining a top seed six weeks out.
“A lot of us haven’t really been in this situation, I guess,” Boyle said. “It’s a challenge, but one we’re ready and willing to accept. We’re going to stand together and obviously try to get through this little blip and start rolling again for the last 23 games.”
This difficult patch has been harder to define for a Rangers squad that has seen its fair of obstacles this season. And it might be the most difficult one they face yet.
“Good teams, good players play well when things are good, but they play even better when they’re fighting that adversity,” Biron said. “There’s desperation for us to stay where we're at and that’s a good place to be.
“Better there than anywhere else.”