Igor Shesterkin was back in net and Mika Zibanejad scored another goal, but the Rangers still wasted a chance Saturday night to take another step forward in the Eastern Conference playoff hunt.
Shesterkin coughed up four straight goals on 11 shots in the second period in his first appearance in two weeks, and Henrik Lundqvist mopped up in the third as the Rangers got beat on home ice by the Devils, 6-4, at the Garden.
Shesterkin, who seized the No. 1 goalie job from Lundqvist by winning nine of his first 10 NHL starts with a 2.23 goals-against average and a .940 save percentage after a Jan. 6 call-up, suffered a fractured rib in a car accident with teammate Pavel Buchnevich on Feb. 23 in Brooklyn.
The 24-year-old Russian completed a full practice Friday before being cleared to return, however, after Alexandar Georgiev had started five of the six games while Shesterkin was sidelined. The Devils managed five goals on 23 shots through two periods before Lundqvist stopped all six shots he faced in the third.
“I’m no doctor and didn’t really know what the timeline was going to be,” coach David Quinn said of Shesterkin before the game. “You just check in with your players when they’re hurt and see how they’re feeling on a daily basis. It didn’t really creep up on anyone inside the walls of our locker room. I’m not surprised just based on the way things have gone.”
The Rangers (36-28-4) remained three points behind the seventh-place Islanders and No. 8 Columbus in the East, pending the Blue Jackets’ late game in Edmonton.
The Devils (28-28-12) are about to miss the postseason for the seventh time in eight seasons, but Kyle Palmieri scored twice to help them improve to 10-4-2 in their last 16 games under interim coach Alain Nasreddine.
This game also marked the latest matchup of struggling rookies Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko, the top two picks in the 2019 NHL entry draft. Hughes has scored only seven goals in 60 games for the Devils, while Kakko has totaled eight — albeit just two in his last 48 appearances.
The 19-year-old Kakko was dropped by Quinn to the fourth line, where the rookie also had finished Thursday’s stirring overtime win over Washington.
“We want to make the playoffs,” Quinn said. “I know [Kakko is] an important piece here right now and he’s an important piece moving forward, for sure.”
While Kakko opened alongside center Greg McKegg and winger Brendan Lemieux, Julien Gauthier — obtained from Carolina less than a week before the February 24 trade deadline — skated as the right wing on the third line with Brett Howden and Filip Chytil.
Gauthier swooped around the net and found Chytil crashing the net to open the scoring with a one-timer from the slot over MacKenzie Blackwood’s glove 5:35 into the game. Palmieri buried the equalizer just 48 seconds later with a hard-angle shot from the left corner that bounded in off of Shesterkin’s skate at the left post.
Zibanejad, off his franchise record-tying five-goal performance Thursday against the Caps, netted his ninth goal in four games and 39th of the season on a give-and-go return pass from Adam Fox at 7:18 for a 2-1 Rangers lead — with fans chanting “Igor” a few times.
But Shesterkin’s rust emerged in the middle session, allowing another equalizer by Palmieri (25th) 44 seconds into the period and another by defenseman Fredrik Claesson less than one minute later for a 3-2 turnaround lead at 1:36.
Travis Zajac (power play) and John Hayden also beat Shesterkin within 25 seconds of each other for a 5-2 Rangers deficit by 16:44.
Quinn sent Lundqvist out to start the third to chants of “Henrik,” for just his fifth appearance (second in relief) since the beginning of February.
McKegg drew the Blueshirts within 5-3 with a deflection of Brendan Smith’s left-point shot with 6:18 remaining in the third, but Zajac added an empty-netter for his second of the game with 56 seconds to go. Tony D’Angelo also scored in the closing seconds for the Rangers.