There's nothing like a trip to Montreal to bring the Rangers back down to Earth.
Given the long histories of both teams, there have been quite a few visits to the jewel of a city in Quebec over the years and most of them have ended with the Rangers coming back through customs declaring their desire never to return. They entered Sunday night's game with the Canadiens with just 64 wins in 303 games in Montreal over the years, but they had reason to feel like things would be different this time around.
The Rangers have the most points in the Eastern Conference, after all, and they spent Saturday night playing one of their best games of the entire season. Every one of their best qualities was on display against a team that has given them trouble in the past and they rode them to a 3-0 win over the Maple Leafs.
Which qualities are we talking about? They hit, they defended, they didn't give up an inch without making Toronto pay for it and they turned turnovers into goals to erase the memory of a bad loss to the Senators last week.
Even with the difficulties involved in playing on back-to-back nights, it was the kind of game that made it easy to believe the Rangers would overcome their Montrealphobia against a dysfunctional Canadiens team that has been exhausting their fans' vocubulary of expletives in both French and English.
It wasn't to be. The Rangers were flat early and sloppy later in a 4-1 loss that makes you wonder how the same team could have been on the ice both nights.
Most of the miscues came in the defensive end with Marc Staal, Stu Bickel and Artem Anisimov all taking turns as blunderers-in-chief on plays that led to Canadiens' goals. Bickel earned himself a tongue-lashing from John Tortorella on the bench and his backsliding play might mean that change is coming on the blue line even before Michael Sauer or Steve Eminger is ready to return from injury.
It was the kind of performance that could only have led to a victory if Henrik Lundqvist stood on his head, but the King wasn't up to that level. He didn't play terribly, but with no help coming from his friends it was Lundqvist or bust for the win.
With two bad losses in their last three games, it is reasonable to ask some questions about what the Rangers need to do to get better even though they are still the pacesetters in their conference. Another top-six forward who can score and keep pressure on the opposition would be a swell addition and there's room to upgrade on the blue line, but the biggest issue will be the team's ability to play their game on a nightly basis.
When they play their game, as they did in Toronto, the Rangers are incredibly difficult to beat with the roster exactly as it is. When they get lazy or careless, as they did in Montreal, the sum of the parts is no longer enough to wind up with two points.
It's a fine line that couldn't have been made much clearer than it was in Canada this weekend.