Marc Staal battles for the puck against the Penguins’ Sidney Crosby on March 27.
COLUMBUS – The Rangers’ optimism after Saturday night’s 4-3 home loss to Buffalo was startling.
They insisted they hadn’t played that badly despite falling to 0-2-1 in their last three and failing twice in three nights to clinch a playoff berth needing only a regulation or overtime win.
“I don’t think we’re feeling any pressure to win a game,” alternate captain Marc Staal said after the loss, before the team flew to Columbus on Sunday’s off day. “That’s the goal. We want to do it in the way we know how, by winning hockey games. The last two haven’t gone our way, but we have (four) more left and I think if we play with the same desperation and emotion that we did in the last couple periods, we’re gonna be fine.”
The Rangers (43-26-9, 95 points) did see their magic number to clinch a playoff berth fall to two thanks to Boston’s 6-4 loss Sunday afternoon to the Chicago Blackhawks. Now a Rangers win of any kind would get them into the postseason, as would one more Bruins loss the rest of the way.
Monday night’s tilt in Columbus, though, will be brutal, win or lose. Don’t count on John Tortorella and Brandon Dubinsky letting the Blueshirts out of Ohio without a few souvenir bruises just because the Blue Jackets (70 points) are way out of it.
From there, the Rangers’ three remaining opponents are as desperate if not more so than Alain Vigneault’s team: the Tampa Bay Lightning, while without Anton Stralman and Steven Stamkos due to injury, are clawing for early home ice entering Tuesday night’s visit to the Garden.
Thursday night’s final showdown with the Islanders (93 points, five to play) may decide which New York team finishes third in the Metropolitan Division and likely meets the red-hot Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round, and which qualifies as a wild-card that starts on the road at top Atlantic teams Florida or Tampa Bay.
Then Saturday afternoon’s season finale against Detroit literally could be for the Red Wings’ postseason lives. Nothing will come easy.
“For a goalie but also as a team we need short memories,” Henrik Lundqvist said Saturday. “We need to bring positives here and go to work and prepare for the next game.”
Quickly, the Rangers need to figure out why they are starting games with little fire and/or efficiency.
They were no-shows in Thursday night’s first period in a 4-3 road loss in Carolina and fell behind 3-0 less than 21 minutes in against Buffalo as Lundqvist was benched in the early second period.
The Rangers can talk optimistically all they want but for a team with so many experienced leaders with poise, they have been unpredictably and alarmingly fragile at different points this season.
Figuring this out starts with their underperforming top players, a group led Saturday by captain Ryan McDonagh, who hasn’t been nearly the consistent high-end difference maker that helped earn him the “C” after the 2013-14 playoffs.
“I have got to stay focused on continuing to try and accomplish what we are trying to do here,” McDonagh said. “I really am going to try and put this behind me as soon as I can and focus on our next game.”
The issues in defensive coverage, puck management and inexplicable no-shows that have plagued the Rangers all season continue to rear their head.
Advancing to the playoffs may seem like a formality, but the Blueshirts’ recent slide here is a bigger deal than just a couple games that haven’t gone their way.