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McDonagh returns but Blackhawks, Panarin sink Rangers

NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

Updated: Thursday, February 18, 2016, 7:12 AM

Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh (r.) is back in action but Patrick Kane (l.) and the Chicago Blackhawks are just too much for the Blueshirts Wednesday night.Elsa/Getty Images

Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh (r.) is back in action but Patrick Kane (l.) and the Chicago Blackhawks are just too much for the Blueshirts Wednesday night.

The Rangers have earned a place in the NHL’s elite since 2011, and they hit their stride again this month. But to join the top ranks officially with a Stanley Cup this spring, they are going to have to beat the big boys.

Wednesday night’s 5-3 loss to the Blackhawks demonstrated so much of the Blueshirts’ progress since their discombobulated December, when every mistake snowballed and confidence nearly disappeared.

They went toe-to-toe with the NHL’s modern gold standard, a Chicago team that has won three of the last six Cups, and scored three unanswered goals to take an early third-period lead for a potential statement win.

The penalty kill’s late collapse, though, and rookie Artemi Panarin’s first career NHL hat trick were reminders that the Rangers (32-19-6, 70 points) still have a long way to go to get where the reigning champion Blackhawks (38-18-5, 81 points) will be on Thursday: the White House.

“We used to be extremely good at doing the little things well,” Henrik Lundqvist (15 saves) said of the penalty kill (1-for-4), which surrendered Andrew Shaw’s game-tying goal at 9:53 of the third period and Panarin’s winner at 17:00. “That’s what we have to come back to, and I have to come up with that extra save. Together we need to figure this out. It’s not one guy. It’s not two. It’s four, plus me.”

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Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford sprawls out for one of his 31 saves.Andy Marlin/USA Today Sports

Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford sprawls out for one of his 31 saves.

This was the Rangers’ first regulation loss in seven games (5-1-1), and veteran defenseman Marc Staal did not play due to the birth of his second child. But even captain Ryan McDonagh’s return from a four-game injury absence couldn’t help the penalty killing.

What had been a strength the last two seasons, the unit now sits 28th out of 30 teams at 76.9%.

They are ahead of only Ottawa (74.3%) and Calgary (73.4%), neither of whom will make the playoffs.

The players understandably were upset with three holding penalties that led to power play goals: against Chris Kreider in the second and against Viktor Stalberg and Keith Yandle in the third.

“At some point you’ve got to let us play,” Lundqvist said. “I do not agree with the last two calls and that was the difference in the end.”

Still, Vigneault said the Rangers made “three bad reads” on the penalty kill, and McDonagh emphasized that their shortcomings were “about taking care of the front of the net, working hard to get back to the front of the net and going out from there.”

They may find quick relief in Thursday night’s visit to cellar-dwelling Toronto, but this loss was still a gut-punch because of the damage the Blueshirts’ power play did on Chicago goalie Corey Crawford (31 saves) in the opening minutes of the third.

Derick Brassard (:24) and Dan Boyle (2:17) tallied during a four-minute power play for a Vincent Hinostroza high-stick that drew blood on Dominic Moore to take a 3-2 lead, building off Kevin Hayes’ goal at 13:45 of the second.

That gave the Rangers’ power play three straight games with a goal (4-for-7) after slumping to 2-for-50 through their previous 18 games, and it answered earlier Blackhawks goals from Andrew Desjardins and Panarin on the power play. 

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