COLUMBUS, Ohio — Confidence can be a fickle mistress, especially for a largely inexperienced team in the NHL.
That is what the Rangers are learning in this tumultuous three-week stretch that started by losing four of five, was then followed by a four-game winning streak, which ended abruptly by blowing a two-goal, third-period lead in Detroit on Friday night, eventually losing 3-2 in overtime. It was a drastic wake-up call for a team that thought it had figured out how to win.
Now, the Rangers were just hoping to put that collapse behind them with the second leg of this road back-to-back against the Blue Jackets on Saturday night.
“Obviously it’s been better. But we want to keep growing,” alternate captain Mika Zibanejad said after the game in Detroit. “We’re not happy. We’re not satisfied with where we are right now. We’re happy with the strides we’ve taken, but this is obviously not our end goal. We have a lot more hockey to play. This is another lesson.”
The lessons have come aplenty for first-year coach David Quinn, who was about as upset as he has been all year in Detroit. He spoke about how the Rangers “wilted” in the third period and how they “cheated the game.” He also got animated when it was brought up that the game-tying goal from Andreas Athanasiou — which might have looked offside from certain angles, but was never challenged at the behest of Rangers video man Jerry Dineen — looked a lot like the game-tying goal from the Kings on Oct. 28.
When asked how he would balance that anger with trying to teach his young squad, Quinn took a moment before answering.
“I’ll be a lot less angry [Saturday] when we talk to them,” Quinn said.
It sure looked to be getting on the right track when they managed to reel off four in a row, starting with two shootout wins against San Jose and Anaheim to end a long, four-game road trip. In both of those games — along with the one preceding it in Los Angeles — they allowed goals late in regulation. So when Athanasiou scored with 2:02 remaining in regulation to tie it, 2-2, on Friday night, it was the fourth straight road game that happened. The frustration was mounting and boiled over when Dylan Larkin won it with 5.1 seconds remaining in the 3-on-3 overtime.
“I think we felt good about the way we [defended a lead] a few times, and that might be the first time we had a two-goal lead going into the third and we just need to play with more confidence with the puck, have it a little more,” alternate captain Marc Staal said. “Kind of chucking it all over the place, letting them have it. That’s not how you defend a two-goal lead, especially when you’re in their rink, they start getting momentum and you let the crowd get into it. You have to be able to weather that.”
Losses like that are really not that shocking for a team that had very little external expectations coming into the season. But that does not mean the expectations aren’t higher inside the locker room, where the confidence has been difficult to maintain.
“Tight games every night,” goalie Henrik Lundqvist said. “We’ve been winning a lot of games lately, tight games. So you can focus on that, too. But if you want to just look at the losses, yeah, we lost a couple close ones, but we also won a couple close ones. It’s going to happen.”