David Quinn repeated the line, either for emphasis or because it had consumed his thoughts.
“We can’t let them win two games tonight,” the Rangers coach said after his team allowed a late goal and lost 4-3 to the Islanders on Thursday night at the Garden, the first of a home-and-home that concludes Saturday afternoon at Barclays Center. “We can’t let them win two games tonight.”
Quinn’s voice was rough and his players were distraught. The morale was low as the Blueshirts took Friday off after having lost five in a row, in a mode in which they are exploring different ways to find themselves in defeat. They dominated the third period, but the one shot the Islanders got in the final 20 minutes went in, a tap-in from Josh Bailey with 1:26 remaining in regulation to give the road team the victory.
There is a sense Quinn and his team know the season is slipping away, if it hasn’t done exactly that already. That hopeful optimism that existed before Thanksgiving with a fantastical run of 9-1-1 has disappeared. Since then, the Rangers are 5-11-5, and their 12 wins in regulation or overtime are the fewest in the NHL.
Yet in a season of bad losses, Thursday’s is one of the toughest — if not the toughest — to swallow.
“We have a lot to compare it to because we’ve had some heartbreaking losses, but that’s right up there,” Quinn said. “It might be at the top of the list.”
These Rangers are young, so it’s to be expected they’re not the most mentally tough group in the league. At times, they have shown resilience in the face of adversity. At other times, they have let bad things snowball. There is a fragility to their collective mindset.
But this is about as bad as things have gotten all year, and it comes at a crucial time. Even if there were a more pragmatic look at this rebuilding season lodged somewhere in the back of Quinn’s mind, he still knows it’s important not to let his team crumble. If development is the point of this campaign, developing young players in a downtrodden environment is hardly beneficial.
“We felt a critical time is when we got back from Christmas,” Quinn said. “I think probably every team felt that way because the league is so tight. The stretch between Christmas and everybody’s [bye-weeks] really makes or breaks your season in a lot of ways.
“We’ve obviously put ourselves in a difficult position in the last week, where now it’s really make or break for us here over the next 10 days. These are pivotal games. When you get deep into the season, every game takes on a different level of importance.”
So now Quinn has to lead this team into Brooklyn, into a building in which the Rangers have never won in seven attempts since the Islanders moved in at the start of the 2015-16 season. This could very well be the final meeting between these two teams as intracity rivals, with the Islanders’ full-time move back to the Coliseum a real possibility for the next two seasons before they settle into their new building at Belmont Park in 2021-22 (if there’s no lockout).
But just as this rivalry has seemingly become one that only carries strong emotion for the fans and not so much the players, so is there an apathy toward the venue.
“Honestly, I haven’t really thought about it,” said Islanders forward Matt Martin, a veteran from when these games were far more passionate on the ice. “There’s so much uncertainty about next season that I don’t think we really think about it.”
Surely the Rangers have a lot more to think about when they arrive on Atlantic Avenue than some bygone record. But the one thing they won’t be forgetting is their own desperate malaise, which can only get worse if Quinn was right and the hangover from Thursday night’s heartbreak carries over.
“We have to work hard at the mental part of this and work past it,” Quinn said. “We can not let this get in the way of our performance on Saturday.”