Inconsistency has been the hallmark of the New York Rangers' season - one that could end without a playoff appearance if they can't finally conquer the problem over the last six games.
The Rangers look to bounce back from a lackluster loss when they continue a season-closing stretch against teams out of playoff position by hosting the Florida Panthers on Thursday night.
New York (21-17-4) had gone 5-1-1 in seven games coming into Tuesday's road contest against Philadelphia, which has endured a rough 2013 and is likely to miss the postseason. The Rangers had also won 11 of 12 against the Flyers.
New York, though, trailed 2-0 after the first period and couldn't make up the difference despite dominating the final 20 minutes, outshooting Philadelphia 17-4 but losing 3-2.
"Every game is a playoff game, we know that," captain Ryan Callahan said. "It's so tight battling for that playoff spot. Every point is really important right now. We have to put this behind us, and we've got another huge game Thursday."
New York holds the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference, but it's tied with Winnipeg with 46 points and is only ahead of the Jets due to having fewer regulation losses and a game in hand. Winnipeg has won four in a row.
The Rangers have been unable to put together prolonged stretches of outstanding play in this shortened season, often turning in momentum-killing efforts that have them fighting just to make the playoffs. They were coming off a 1-0 overtime victory over the Islanders on Saturday that represented one of their best games of the season.
New York won't be able to blame stiff competition down the stretch if it fails to reach the playoffs a season after advancing to the conference finals. The Rangers have two games left against NHL-worst Florida, along with two against a New Jersey club that's lost 10 in a row and matchups with Buffalo and Carolina.
Asked if there's enough desperation driving the Rangers late in the season, Callahan said, "It is at times. Consistently, I don't think it's there."
As a result, Thursday's contest becomes a critical one for New York, winner of three in a row at home. With the streaking Jets hosting the Hurricanes, the Rangers could find themselves out of playoff position by the end of the night if they don't take advantage of the struggling Panthers (13-23-6).
Florida has dropped three straight and four of five since a season-high three-game winning streak, scoring seven goals in the past four games. The Panthers' 101 goals are the second fewest in the East - one fewer than the Rangers' total.
Florida couldn't help the Rangers out Tuesday, falling 5-2 to the Islanders, who moved three points up on their area rivals for the seventh seed.
"All we can do is continue trying our best and playing for pride," defenseman Mike Weaver said. "We have to keep playing hard."
Outshot 15-7 in the first period, the Panthers did hold a 12-7 shot advantage in the third.
Florida snapped a three-game skid in this series with a 3-1 road victory March 21, getting 44 saves from Jacob Markstrom. The third-year goalie has struggled of late, however, going 0-4-0 with a 5.87 goals-against average in his last four starts and getting pulled Tuesday after allowing five goals on 18 shots.
Rangers forward Brian Boyle left with a lower-body injury against the Flyers and didn't return. His status is uncertain.
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
All Rights Reserved