NEW YORK - Sunday began with loud cheers and optimism, but it ended with sobering silence.
The Madison Square Garden crowd sat stunned by what unfolded in front of them — not just the Rangers' 5-3 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers, but the humbling of one of their heroes.
It was probably too much to ask for Henrik Lundqvist to perform like a savior after a 27-day layoff. His rust was apparent, with a sloppy first period leaving fans sensing the end of an era.
"I haven't played in a long time," Lundqvist said. "Personally, you want to go out there and try to build a good feeling, and obviously that was pretty tough giving up three first-period goals. I don’t think I was very good."
The 37-year-old goalie was far from the only culprit.
Collectively, the Rangers put forth a lifeless effort in the first period. Back-to-back losses to the Flyers made the previous run of nine wins in 10 games feel like a distant memory. But whether it's fair or not, Sunday's loss will be more difficult for Lundqvist to recover from than his teammates.
"I knew going into this game it was going to be a great challenge for me to try to be on top of my game," Lundqvist said. "I’ve been working hard, but in the end, it’s about how you focus and making good decisions."
He hadn't started since Feb. 3, with only four starts since Dec. 27. The arrival of Igor Shesterkin, coupled with the emergence of Alexandar Georgiev, has relegated Lundqvist to the role of No. 3 goaltender. But with Shesterkin fracturing a rib in a car accident last Sunday, it became clear that the Rangers were going to have to use him again sooner than later.
Georgiev received the first three starts following Shesterkin's injury, but Friday's 5-2 loss in Philly prompted Rangers coach David Quinn to give Lundqvist a shot.
"Listen, we all touched on how hard of a situation it is for him," Quinn said. "Nobody's more sympathetic to the situation than I am. He and I had three or four conversations this week, and we want to put him in a situation to succeed."
Prior to the game, Quinn expressed confidence that Lundqvist would respond well — "I’m expecting a real good game out of him," he said — and the crowd greeted him with a thunderous ovation when his name was announced.
Then Lundqvist allowed three first-period goals on 13 shots, making only 21 saves in total, with a combination of penalties and odd-man rushes repeatedly putting him in difficult situations.
"I didn't think he was our issue," Quinn said. "I know you may look at it statistically, but Hank was not our problem."
The Rangers (35-26-4) entered the day sitting just two points out of the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference and remain very much in the playoff race. But the struggles against the Flyers, coupled with Chris Kreider fracturing his foot on Friday, has dampened the mood around the team.
"We're still in a very interesting spot," Lundqvist said. "I'm so impressed with the guys, what they've done here over the last few weeks, and put this team in a position to maybe make the playoffs. My role has obviously changed a lot over the last couple months, and we have time to talk about that. But right now, I just try to be supportive."
After not starting for nearly four weeks, Lundqvist would have benefited from a methodical start to allow some time to get readjusted.
The Rangers had other plans, with Ryan Lindgren taking a hooking penalty just 23 seconds into the game.
Their penalty kill has been a strength during the recent playoff push, but it reverted back to bad habits on Sunday.
Both of Philadelphia's first two goals came on the power play — the first from Matt Niskanen and the second from Sean Couturier. Both were also the results of rebounds, with Niskanen following a Nicolas Aube-Kubel shot off the post and Couturier collecting a shot from Jakub Voracek that went off Lundqvist's right pad.
The third goal allowed by the Rangers in the first period came with the Flyers shorthanded. Ryan Strome lost the puck after being pushed to the ice by Michael Raffl, and with the Rangers struggling to get back and defend after a long power-play shift, Raffl netted a pass from Derek Grant to make it 3-0.
Then, another demoralizing blow came to begin the second period. Just 1:23 in, the Rangers once again allowed an odd-man rush, with Grant pushing the lead to 4-0.
The Rangers showed some fight by scoring three of the final four goals, including two from Mika Zibanejad. But the game was out of reach by then.