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Rangers outplayed by Canadiens in disappointing home loss

Henrik Lundqvist always talked about focusing on the process and the journey rather than the result. Mika Zibanejad begs to differ.

“It feels like the year is going by quickly, but we still have almost a half of the season to play,” Zibanejad said following Thursday’s dramatic overtime victory over Dallas. “I think we’ve been getting more of the bounces now because we are working hard to earn them and we’re doing more of the right things.

“But I said this about a month ago and it’s still true. It’s not about playing well to create good habits. That’s not the most important thing. You want to play well, of course, but to me, the only important thing is to win the game and get two points. That’s how close it is.”

Back at the Garden on Sunday against Montreal, the Rangers did not play especially well. They were outplayed much of the way by their 27th overall opponents.

Most importantly, to Zibanejad’s point, they did not win, dropping this one 2-1 to negate the impact of Thursday’s final-second mini-miracle triumph.

While New York Rangers left wing Jimmy Vesey (26) lays flat out on the ice, Montreal Canadiens celebrate a game-winning goal by right wing Cole Caufield (22) during the third period.
Robert Sabo

The score was even at 1-1 after a second period in which Artemi Panarin drilled one in on a delayed penalty at 16:03, negating Kirby Dach’s power-play goal at 4:54. The Rangers had rarely initiated through the opening 40 minutes.

And they paid the price in the third period, Cole Caufield scoring at 8:56 and Sam Montembeault making 38 saves to send the Blueshirts to only their third defeat (13-3-2) in the last 18 games and keep their playoff cushion at seven points.

The choice by head coach Gerard Gallant to go with Igor Shesterkin in net on this front end of a back-to-back that concludes in Columbus on Monday proved inspired. Shesterkin rejected five Grade A chances in the first period starting with Cole Caufield’s left-wing dash to the net just 45 seconds into the match. Shesterkin’s most acrobatic stop coming against first-overall Juraj Slavkovsky from in front just under 10 minutes into the match. The goaltender was outstanding throughout.

A shot from Montreal Canadiens center Kirby Dach gets by New York Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin (31) for a goal during the second period.
Robert Sabo

The Canadiens had few illusions entering the season following a particularly ugly crash-and-burn last season that cost general manager Marc Bergevin his job. In came Jeff Gorton, who had engineered the rebuild in New York, as vice president of hockey operations and soon after, Kent Hughes as GM and Martin St. Louis as coach.

And indeed, without necessarily trying, it seemed as if Montreal would be in prime lottery position to snare Connor Bedard. But the Habs, perhaps performing out of the gate as an extension of their coach’s overachieving persona, were a shockingly creditable 14-12-2 as of the morning of Dec. 2.

Rangers left wing Sammy Blais (91) is grabbed by the neck and slammed to there ice by Montreal Canadiens defenseman Arber Xhekaj (72) during the first period.
Robert Sabo

Even a stark leveling off that brought the club into the Garden with three victories in their immediately preceding 15 games (3-11-1), hasn’t been enough to move the Canadiens within even hailing distance of the Columbus-Anaheim-Chicago triumvirate that is in control of prime lottery positions.

The Habs — 27th-overall, nine points better than the cellar-dwelling Jackets — will just have to count on Gorton’s magic to materialize a third time at the ping-pong-ball extravaganza as it did in 2019, when the Blueshirts moved up from sixth to second to nab Kaapo Kakko, and again the next, when the team leapfrogged out of the 24-team bubble tournament to the first-overall selection that yielded Alexis Lafreniere.

Lafreniere, meanwhile, was on the left for the second straight game in Chris Kreider’s absence with Mika Zibanejad and Kaapo Kakko. The unit, which had originally been intact for a stretch of 10 periods at the outset of this run, got 14:34 of ice in Thursday’s dramatic 2-1 overtime victory over the Stars with a 77.78 shot share and 56.72 xG.

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