After such a torrid streak, things have quickly grown bleaker for the Rangers.
A 22-game stretch that saw the Blueshirts go 16-6-0 to throttle their way back into the playoff conversation had plenty ditch the word “rebuild” and adopt the word “contender.”
A team that was once predicted to be sellers at the trade deadline suddenly retained its largest trade chip, forward Chris Kreider, and extend him with a seven-year deal.
Their top goalie prospect, Igor Shesterkin, looked unbeatable through his first 10 NHL starts as the second coming of Henrik Lundqvist — who suddenly was out of favor in a three-man goalie rotation that also featured Alexandar Georgiev.
Despite receiving bad news on Monday that Shesterkin would miss extended time with a broken rib following a car crash in Brooklyn, a Thursday-night victory in Montreal against the Canadiens — their ninth straight on the road — had the Rangers just two points out of a wild-card spot.
But the blows kept coming with a home-and-home against the Flyers starting Friday, with a 5-2 loss being made worse with Kreider suffering a fractured foot.
Sunday saw the Rangers turn to Lundqvist, who made his first start in net since Feb. 3 and his first appearance since Feb. 11.
It didn’t go well as the Rangers’ defense deteriorated in front of the veteran, conceding five goals for a second-straight game — including three power-play goals — against Philadelphia in a 5-3 loss.
Lundqvist made just 21 saves in the effort, though Rangers head coach David Quinn made it clear that the loss wasn’t on him.
“No one is more sympathetic to the situation than I am,” Quinn said. “He and I have had three or four conversations this week and we want to put him in a situation to succeed. Hank was not our problem.”
That may be the case, but a questionable Rangers defense needs all the help it can get in the crease, which Shesterkin was providing.
He’ll be re-evaluated next week, but Quinn is optimistic he’ll be back earlier than expected.
“He feels a lot better, he’s been on the ice and has taken some shots. Nothing high,” Quinn said. “He might be back sooner than we envision. But it’s an injury that we’ll have to monitor daily but he’s made a lot of progress in the past week.”
While the Rangers are still just four points out of a playoff spot, their final push for the postseason with 17 games remaining starts on a difficult note Tuesday.
The defending Stanley Cup-champion St. Louis Blues visit Madison Square Garden before the Metropolitan Division-leading Washington Capitals invade the Big Apple two nights later.
Two losses would certainly damage their wild-card pursuit as the Carolina Hurricanes already sit in between them and the final playoff spot held by the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“We have a lot of games left,” forward Mika Zibanejad said. “We have to tie some things up and get back to playing like we can.”