Measuring-stick games this early in the season generally have more meaning for teams attempting to establish themselves than those who are considered to be contenders. The Devils and Sabres would be in the first group. The Rangers would be among the latter.
But on Thursday at the Garden, a measurement against the league-leading Bruins did not flatter the Blueshirts. Not at all. The 5-2 empty net-abetted final might be a tad harsh as an indication of the proceedings, but perhaps not by all that much.
For as captain Jacob Trouba told The Post after the B’s broke an early third-period 2-2 draw to win going away: “There’s another level we have to find if we want to be up there with the best teams in the league.
“I’m not suggesting that it’s not attainable. We have to keep building this thing. I don’t think we’re that far off. But we know we have to be better going forward.”
There were rationalizations at hand if the Rangers, now 6-4-2 through the opening dozen to the B’s 10-1-0, wanted to use them. Ryan Lindgren left the game for good at 10:45 with an upper body-injury minutes after being taken down without the puck on a blindside, retaliatory hit by David Pastrnak.
This both deprived the team of its most combative defenseman, if not player, against a tough, tenacious opponent with a gang-like mentality and reduced the complement of blueliners to five. That, in turn, meant a career-high 23:46 of ice for Zac Jones and 16:19 for Braden Schneider, not that the two young’uns should be scapegoated.
Thursday also marked the club’s fourth game in six days/nights that included a cross-country trip home from Arizona. But the Rangers, thankfully, did not fall back on excuses. Every team has to navigate injuries, and every team has to confront difficult travelogues. The best find ways to overcome them.
The start was not particularly impressive, the middle part of the match was more like it, but the finish was downright indecent. The Blueshirts were outshot, 14-2, after Adam Fox leveled the score at 2-2 at 3:44 of the third period.
The Bruins are rolling under new coach Jim Montgomery, even without the rehabbing Charlie McAvoy and even with Brad Marchand having played in only three games. They are big and they are talented. They — or last year’s team — lost to the Hurricanes in a seven-game first round before the Blueshirts took the same opponents out in a seven-game second round. So there would have been no reason whatsoever for the Rangers to genuflect in front of their foes.
“They are a very good team,” said Artemi Panarin, who had two shots on three attempts in 20:58. “But I think we can play with them.”
Of course the Rangers can play with them. But beating the B’s becomes a different matter if Igor Shesterkin is outdone at the other end of the ice and if the power play is impotent. That was surely a large part of this story.
It’s not that Boston netminder Linus Ullmark was under much duress. The Rangers had their chances here and there but, other than a shift or two, were rarely able to put pressure on the Bruins’ defense or control the ground game below the hashmarks. Though beaten on Fox’s rising 30-footer, Ullmark made the saves he should have made.
That cannot be said for Shesterkin, who yielded a wonky one 12:53 into the first when Pastrnak’s backhand from an acute angle from the left corner somehow snaked in above the netminder’s right shoulder. The netminder might have been in better position to stop Hampus Lindholm’s ladle in front to Charlie Coyle for the 2-1 goal after the Boston defenseman had circled the net.
It isn’t that Shesterkin was bad. He made a handful of big-time stops when the Bruins imposed their physical will on his team. It is just that the netminder was unable to steal this one the way he stole so many last season. A reminder: Shesterkin has recorded a save percentage of .900 or lower in four of his nine starts, including Thursday’s .889.
The power play generated almost nothing on its two opportunities, combining for one shot on two attempts in four minutes of five-on-four while being out-chanced 2-1, according to NaturalStatTrick. The numbers and analytics were complementary to the eye test, which was not complimentary at all to the Rangers.
This was tough-sledding for a team that fancies itself among the league’s big boys. As Trouba acknowledged, there’s a way to go before the Rangers attain that status.