NEW YORK -- After recording three straight wins against some of the mediocre and bottom-dwelling teams in the Eastern Conference, the Rangers ran into the big boys in the West on Monday night at Madison Square Garden.
Before their match against the Anaheim Ducks, the Rangers talked about using the game as a measuring stick, both to see where they stack up against one of the elite teams in the league and to gauge just how far they've come since suffering a humiliating 6-0 loss in Anaheim earlier this season.
In facing the high-flying Ducks and trying to climb back to .500 for only the second time this season, the Rangers came up short in Monday's 2-1 loss, a defeat that dropped them to 6-8-0.
While the Ducks leapfrogged both the Avalanche and the Sharks to claim the top spot in the league, the Rangers remain two points back of the last playoff spot in the much weaker Eastern Conference.
Make no mistake, this Rangers team has drastically improved from the one that was shamed out of Anaheim on Oct. 10, but its chance to exact some revenge was thwarted by Ducks goaltender Frederik Andersen's 32-save performance and a superior squad that capitalized on a pair of Rangers miscues.
"It's disappointing," said defenseman and alternate captain Marc Staal. "They're a better team than we've been up against for the last few, so we were excited for the challenge. ... We just had a slow start. It hurt us and we weren't able to generate enough to take over the game and win."
A poor start left the Rangers behind the eight ball as the Ducks took a 2-0 lead in the opening frame. A turnover and breakdown in the team's own end left top-line winger Corey Perry all alone in front for the game's first goal just 2:29 into play.
Another turnover, this one committed by veteran center Brad Richards in the neutral zone, led to a prime scoring opportunity for Anaheim as Kyle Palmieri sniped a shot from the left faceoff circle to beat Henrik Lundqvist midway through the frame.
"We just made two mistakes with the puck and they were able to make us pay on them," said coach Alain Vigneault.
McDonagh helped create offense from the team's back end, as did Michael Del Zotto, who was the Rangers' lone goal scorer after his second-period marker, but Vigneault made it clear he needed more from his defense than he was getting.
"It's so important to create offense from your back end," he said, pointing out that two defensemen didn't even have looks at the net. "We need to generate some from ours."
After facing some admittedly weaker opponents last week, the Rangers are in for another big test against Pittsburgh Wednesday night. Sidney Crosby and the Penguins remain the team to beat in the East.
"It's a good lesson for us, especially playing these top teams," Lundqvist said. "We have to be smart and hungry and play a desperate game right from the get-go."