For the Chicago Blackhawks, a 2-1 loss to the Rangers on Saturday night at the Garden was hardly indicative of a struggling team on the brink of playoff elimination.
But the Blackhawks are reeling.
Following an eye-popping 8-2 loss at home to the Ducks on Thursday, Chicago had dropped three of its last four, including a pair of one-goal setbacks, and saw the Blackhawks go from first place in the Central Division to a tie for fourth, one point behind second-place Minnesota.
The Blackhawks’ travel woes came back to bite them as they arrived in New York, and they sure showed the effects at the Garden.
Los Angeles Kings goaltender Peter Budaj, Chicago Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford and Jack Edwards, center, battle for the puck during the third period of Game 3 of an NHL Stanley Cup Western Conference quarterfinal playoff hockey game Saturday, April 12, 2014, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
“We had an opportunity to make a series of it, and we’ve put ourselves in a hole again,” Blackhawks’ captain Jonathan Toews said in the tunnel after the loss. “We’ve got a lot of guys in here that are frustrated with where we are right now. We’d like to play better than we did tonight, but we’ve got to find a way to regroup and get ready for the next one.”
Only the Blackhawks and Washington Capitals (who have just a single game remaining) of the NHL’s so-called “Big Four” have clinched their playoff berths, and the Capitals’ loss on Saturday night at Montreal leaves Washington with just a one-point edge on Chicago for second place.
The Rangers (28-18-3), who defeated Chicago 3-2 in Chicago on April 15 and 4-2 in New York on Oct. 12, are now a point back of the Rangers with two games in hand.
The defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins (30-17-3) lead the standings by three points over the Capitals (26-20-5) for the first and second wild card spots.
And then there’s the Hawks, who began the weekend in second place in the Central, three points ahead of Nashville and three points ahead of St. Louis, but struggled mightily in the third period of their Saturday home game, committed an undisciplined double minor and lost a shootout.
“We’ve won a lot of hockey games with this group over the last couple of years,” Toews said. “We just have to stick with it and not get too down. There are going to be highs and lows throughout the year, you just have to find a way to push through it.
“We’ve just got to keep going to those destinations (the playoffs) and find ways to win.”
It was the Rangers who scored the game’s first goal, with Bobby Ryan scoring at 12:29 on a rebound of Derek Stepan’s goal.
Antti Raanta made 16 saves to improve to 9-1-2.
Corey Crawford allowed both goals and suffered his second regulation loss in five starts since returning from a concussion. Crawford stopped 26 shots.
Toews, Toews, Brandon Saad and Patrick Kane had scoring opportunities in the first period for the Blackhawks, and Crawford also denied Ryan Callahan.
James Sheppard grabbed a first-period rebound on a Kevin Hayes shot and fired a shot past Crawford.
Crawford allowed another rebound, this time on a Mitchell Hagelin shot, and Derek Stepan scored to give the Rangers a 2-0 lead at 10:52 of the second period.
Hagelin earned his 100th NHL point on the goal.
The Blackhawks were on the power play in the final three minutes of the second period and Kane scored, but New York held on to take a two-goal lead into the third period.
Carey Price made 19 saves for Montreal.