The Rangers’ hopes for first place in the Metropolitan Division were crushed by their loss to Tuesday night to Carolina, but that seemed insignificant in comparison to the concern for players’ health.
Artemi Panarin and Andrew Copp went to the locker room roughly halfway through the second period and stayed there for the remainder of the Rangers’ 4-3 loss to the Hurricanes — now division champions — who came to Madison Square Garden and roughed up the home team in their final meeting of the regular season.
The Rangers said Panarin suffered an upper-body injury, while Copp left with a lower-body injury.
Copp was skating in his first game back after missing the Rangers’ game Saturday at Boston due to an undisclosed lower-body injury. It is unclear if the trade-deadline acquisition aggravated the same injury. But with the way the game was going, the Rangers may have kept Copp out as a precaution the moment his injury flared up.
The same goes for Panarin, who has played in every game since Jan. 10 and was due for a breather.
Head coach Gerard Gallant was adamant after practice Monday that having his team 100 percent healthy for the postseason was more important than winning a couple of games. If that’s the case, the Rangers should not be dressing their full lineup in the second night of the back-to-back against the Canadiens on Wednesday or in the final matchup of the regular season against the Capitals on Friday.
It’s simply not worth getting the four players who have a shot at it into all 82 games. It’s not worth allowing Panarin to chase 100 points. It’s not worth it to see whether Chris Kreider can break the franchise record for goals in a single season or if Mika Zibanejad can reach 30 goals.
None of it would be worth it if the Rangers end up shorthanded in any capacity come Game 1 of Round 1 of the playoffs next month.
Despite the loss and additional injuries, the Rangers got Filip Chytil back in the lineup after the Czech center also missed the game against the Bruins on Saturday with an upper-body injury. Chytil slotted back into the middle of the third line between Alexis Lafreniere and Barclay Goodrow.
On the other hand, Kaapo Kakko remained sidelined with an undisclosed lower-body injury. The Finnish winger did participate in practice on Monday, but he evidently needed another game to recuperate. Given how the last three months have shaken out for Kakko, the Rangers will not rush him back.
Carolina broke through with three goals in the second period from Vincent Trocheck, Jordan Martinook and Teuvo Teravainen. Kreider got the Rangers on the board at 16:56 to break it up, taking a one-handed pass from Frank Vatrano and finishing the breakaway for his 52nd goal of the season, two short of Jaromir Jagr’s record of 54 from 2005-06.
Even though Hurricanes forward Sebastian Aho scored 32 seconds into the final frame to put the game out of reach, Jacob Trouba pulled the Rangers within two at 13:12. Lafreniere then scored with just over a minute left in regulation with six skaters on for the Rangers, but it was too late.
The Rangers and Hurricanes went scoreless through the opening period despite a combined three power plays. Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin was particularly clutch during the Rangers’ first two penalty kills, stopping eight straight shots total to keep Carolina off the board.
Shesterkin turned aside 31 of the 35 shots he faced in his 13th loss of the season.
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