NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Rangers’ already-ugly season is only getting worse.
The Blueshirts dropped a 5-2 decision to the Predators on Saturday night at Bridgestone Arena, and in the process, they lost two key pieces.
Both Marc Staal and Jimmy Vesey were forced out of the game after unpenalized hits to the head in the second period. It was a nasty, contentious game from the drop of the puck, and the Rangers could answer neither the physicality nor the skill of the Predators.
So not only are they losing, they’re getting bullied, too.
The Rangers (25-22-5) came in having gone 6-9-2 over their previous 17 games, putting them perilously close to slipping out of the postseason picture. With the loss, they now are in last place in the Metropolitan Division.
The pressure was mounting for general manager Jeff Gorton to get something in return for a couple of his players before the Feb. 26 trade deadline, and the Rangers have not done much to inspire him to keep them together. That especially was true in the 4-0 blowout loss to the Maple Leafs at the Garden on Thursday, the Rangers’ first game after the weeklong All-Star break.
At the other end of the spectrum were the Predators (31-12-7), who were in the Stanley Cup final this past season and are looking to get back there — likely by adding players before the deadline. As Rangers coach Alain Vigneault has been happy to point out, the Predators were the No. 8 seed in the West last year — or “No. 16” in the league, as Vigneault has been happy to say — before making their run.
“We’re playing against the Stanley Cup finalist, a team that finished 16th to get into the playoffs,” Vigneault said. “So we have to find another level and elevate our game.”
The Rangers had hardly done that when they started the third period down 2-0. At that point, they had generated just eight shots, with only three in second period.
They managed to get a power-play goal from J.T. Miller 21 seconds into the third, a nice redirection of a hard Mats Zuccarello pass that beat goalie Pekka Rinne — who came in riding two consecutive shutouts. But the momentum didn’t last long, as the Predators countered with Colton Sissions tipping a P.K. Subban blast behind Henrik Lundqvist at 2:36, giving Nashville a 3-1 lead.
The Rangers got another power-play goal, this one from Mika Zibanejad with 5:25 remaining in regulation to cut the deficit to 3-2. But the Predators needed just 16 seconds to erase that one, getting one from Viktor Arvidsson to make it 4-2. Kevin Fiala finished things off with his second of the night, this one into the empty net with 2:04 remaining.
Things turned especially nasty in the second period, starting when Nashville defenseman Alexei Emelin buried Staal’s head into the boards with 11:12 remaining in the period. Staal, who has a history of concussions, went to the locker room and did not return. Less than a minute later, Filip Forsberg turned his back and put an elbow into the mouth of Vesey, filling Vesey’s mouth with blood. Vesey played one more shift in the second period but did not return to start the third.
Inexplicably, neither hit drew a penalty. The Vesey hit, however, drew the ire of the Rangers, as Brady Skjei decided to fight Ryan Johansen.
But the scoreboard was where things mattered, and after Subban gave the Predators a 1-0 lead just 19 seconds into the second period, Skjei had a ghastly turnover that resulted in Fiala scoring his first at 17:34, giving the Predators a 2-0 lead.
Skjei figured to be a critical part of this Rangers team, but his slip in play has been emblematic of their problems from top to bottom.
“In my estimation, Brady can play better than he has in both areas, whether it be defending or whether it be decision-making with the puck,” Vigneault had said. “I’m sure if you would ask him, he’d be the first to tell you the same thing. He expected more from himself, and there’s no doubt that we expect more from him.”
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