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Rangers need to snap out of third-period rut

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Ryan McDonagh and the Rangers need to avoid stumbling late in games.Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Ryan McDonagh and the Rangers need to avoid stumbling late in games.

SAN JOSE – The Rangers’ late-game habits and execution have cost them several close calls against top teams. They’ve worked hard this week in California, but it’s discouraging 71 games into their season to realize hard work is not necessarily enough.

Mats Zuccarello said “everyone battled hard” in Thursday night’s 4-3 OT loss to the Kings at Staples Center. Alain Vigneault said “were proud of the way we competed” but admitted that L.A. Kings center Anze Kopitar, who scored the game-tying and game-winning goals, is “a big, strong, premier player,” and that L.A. is “tough to handle.”

“Our guys gave it everything they had,” Vigneault said.

The Blueshirts (40-23-8, 88 points) understandably took issue with the officials on Kopitar’s game-tying goal at 15:50 of the third, with forward Tyler Toffoli in Henrik Lundqvist’s crease. However, who is to say the Kings wouldn’t tied the game again anyway if Kopitar’s goal had been waved off?

The Rangers’ frustrating late-game pattern of sitting back on their heels continues to cost them. They insist it’s not part of an intentional strategy or game plan. Their opponents are forcing mistakes and tiring them out. When the Rangers do clear the puck, they need to change instead of attacking up ice.

If that’s the case, though, the admission is this: We’re not trying to sit back, we’re just getting outplayed.

Look, the Rangers have picked up three of four points so far this week, including Wednesday night’s 2-1 win over the Anaheim Ducks. They have a chance to make it five of six points in Saturday afternoon’s 1 p.m. Pacific Time start against the San Jose Sharks (39-25-6, 84 points). They’re still in second place in the Metropolitan Division, three points ahead of the Islanders (85 points), who hold two games in hand.

But this is about holding a Rangers team with Stanley Cup aspirations to the high standard to which they hold themselves. Their hunker-down-and-hope operation in third periods will not be sustainable in the playoffs.

Consider this: The Rangers have surrendered a game-winning or game-tying goal in the final three minutes of the third period in eight losses this season – seven times against playoff teams, five times in regulation, letting precious points slip away.

Tampa Bay’s Valterri Filppula scored a shorthanded winner at 18:55 in a 2-1 regulation road loss on Nov. 19. Boston’s Ryan Spooner (16:19) and David Krejci (18:17) overcame a 3-2 deficit for a 4-3 regulation road loss on Nov. 27. Edmonton’s Taylor Hall (18:26) snapped a 5-5 tie in a 7-5 regulation road loss on Dec. 11.

Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom (19:54) tied an eventual 4-3 OT home loss on Jan. 9. L.A.’s Kopitar (19:30) knotted a 5-4 OT home loss on Dec. 12. Chicago’s Artemi Panarin (17:00) completed a comeback from a 3-2 deficit in a 5-3 regulation loss on Feb. 17.

Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers are finding ways to lose points down the stretch of games.Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers are finding ways to lose points down the stretch of games.

The Islanders’ Cal Clutterbuck (18:32) snapped a 4-4 tie in a 6-4 Ranger home loss March 6. Detroit’s Brad Richards (19:28) sent an eventual 3-2 Ranger road loss to OT last Saturday.

The Kings didn’t wait until the final three minutes of regulation to erase Thursday’s 3-1 deficit. Goalie interference or not, Vigneault’s team was on its heels protecting a lead.

There have been plenty of positives: the team’s work ethic, its defense and structure in Anaheim, Kevin Klein’s two goals against the Ducks, J.T. Miller’s forceful night in L.A., Tanner Glass’ consistent physical impact and improved offensive involvement. Dominic Moore and Kevin Hayes mostly have responded well to Sunday’s benchings in a home loss to the Penguins.

Derick Brassard, though, needs to start winning his pivotal matchups against some other teams’ top centers. Brassard must assert himself and win physical battles and head-to-heads. He is one of the Rangers’ most important players, especially with Vigneault counting on him and Zuccarello to help Rick Nash get going offensively.

Nash has to start finishing in order to complement his defensive excellence in his first four games back from a 20-game injury absence. Defenseman Dan Girardi’s costly puck management problems continue, even on nights like Wednesday in Anaheim, when he defended well when he didn’t actually have possession himself.

The defense overall is working hard on its structure but not sustaining consistent efficiency long enough. And Henrik Lundqvist suddenly has not won a start since Feb. 27 in Dallas, due to a three-game injury absence, one DNP, and an 0-2-2 record in four starts since.

That puts the Rangers in a position that’s become frustratingly familiar this season: one of uncertainty down the stretch.

FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE

Top Rangers forward prospect Pavel Buchnevich will remain in Russia a while longer. His SKA Saint Petersburg club eliminated Dynamo MSK on Thursday night to advance to the KHL Conference Finals, which open next Tuesday against CSKA Moscow.

Buchnevich, a 2013 third-round pick, is expected to sign his entry-level deal with the Rangers once his KHL season concludes. It is unlikely he will join the NHL roster, though, since it would burn the first year of his three-year contract. More likely, he’ll join the Hartford Wolf Pack and enter training camp in the fall.

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