I could feel it coming and eventually it came. Turnover after turnover led to scoring chance after scoring chance for the Blue Jackets in the final minutes on Sunday night at the Garden. The Blue Jackets began to control play as the minutes ticked down, and while the Rangers looked content with hanging on for one point and taking their chances in the post-regulation skills competition, the Blue Jackets played as though a regulation win was worth a third point.
I had spent most of the night envisioning Igor Shesterkin earning a shutout in his third career game and improving to 3-0 in the NHL, as Rangers fans began to seriously think about the playoffs. The Rangers were just under 14 minutes away from winning for the fifth time in six games and from being on the right end of the four-point swing David Quinn has frequently talked about for Metropolitan games. I started to think this team might really go on the sort of run that would land them in the postseason not even a calendar year after the organization looked like it might not be competitive for a decade. But while I was daydreaming about the Rangers picking up a Chance card instructing them to advance to GO while avoiding all the houses and hotels and obstacles that come with a complete tear-down rebuild, the Blue Jackets quickly woke me up.
Oliver Bjorkstrand beat Shesterkin on an unassisted goal 6:08 into the third and I was awake. Following the tying goal, the Blue Jackets flipped a switch and took over the game, and it only felt like a matter of time until the Rangers were trailing. That time came when the Rangers allowed an inexplicable 3-on-2 with 26.5 seconds to play and Bjorkstrand ripped one past Shesterkin’s glove. Quinn called timeout, only delaying the inevitable of the last 13-plus minutes of play, as the Rangers eventually lost 2-1.
It was a deflating defeat. The kind where no one is talking on the way out of the building and the kind where you sit on your couch and end up watching MSG for hours because you don’t feel like moving to get the remote because you don’t feel like moving to do anything. It might not have actually been a season-ending elimination game, but it sure feels like it was.
I knew how hard it was going to be for the Rangers to make the playoffs before the season began. I knew how hard it would be after their five-game losing streak in October, three-game losing streak in December and three-game losing streak to end 2019 and begin 2020. They had played too much .500 hockey in between their losing streaks and hadn’t put together the type of extended winning streak they would need to make up the point differential in the standings. It’s why I wrote in the most recent Thursday Thoughts how it would likely take a 23-10-4 finish for them to make the playoffs, and even then, with 98 points, it still might not be enough.
But over the last two weeks, the Rangers started to put a dent into the nearly improbably math suggesting they wouldn’t play an 83rd game for the third straight season. Wins over Colorado and New Jersey and back-to-back wins over the Islanders sandwiched an expected loss in St. Louis, and by acheiving wins in four of five and earning eight of a possible 10 points the loss column had barely budged as the team started to make up ground on the wild card. Then Sunday night happened. After getting 11 goals of support in his first two NHL starts, Shesterkin experienced a game right out of the Henrik Lundqvist era in which the Rangers couldn’t find the back of the net, and couldn’t even hang on for at least one point in the final minute.
After beating the Islanders at the Coliseum, the Rangers’ needed record improved to 22-10-4, but that loss to Columbus hurt, and it hurt bad. The path to the postseason was never exactly clear, especially since after the team’s 10-day layoff, they will play 34 games in 65 days. Asking the youngest team in the league to essentially play .667 hockey for the final two months of the season when some of their young core will have already played more hockey in a single season than they ever have before just isn’t reasonable. Now with the last-minute loss, the only way to the postseason is with a single-digit amount of regulation losses the rest of the way with an adbundance of games against the league’s best still to be played.
This season was supposed to be about experience and development and progress for the rebuild. It was never supposed to be about wins and losses and points and the playoffs. After Sunday’s loss, the Rangers are one loss closer to making sure it’s not.