By Sean Hartnett
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Lately, the Rangers have been playing with fire. It was only a matter of time before their defensive warts would cost them points. On Thursday night, they finally got burned.

The Sedin twins and the cycling Canucks won the possession battle and pinned the Rangers deep in the defensive zone.

The Rangers blew three leads in their 5-4 shootout loss to the visiting Vancouver Canucks. Following the defeat that ended their four-game winning streak, captain Ryan McDonagh bemoaned what was a missed opportunity to grab two points.

“Obviously, it wasn’t a great effort or good execution for us at all tonight,” McDonagh said. “Yet you find yourself up 4-3 there. You wish you could find a way to close it out, for sure. We weren’t playing near where we need to play, but we still had a chance to win the game. We really just let an opportunity slide.”

The Rangers can’t afford to keep playing these fire-wagon games. They’re capable of playing tighter and more cohesively in the defensive zone. They need to stamp out their sloppiness, take better care of the puck and pay closer attention to their assignments. It’s too late in the season for these trends to be continuing. These are issues that should have been corrected in December.

“It’s tough because we had a hold of the game there and couldn’t find a way to finish it off,” McDonagh said.

Following the defeat, head coach Alain Vigneault admitted that a number of his players weren’t able to raise their games against an injury-depleted — yet hungry — Canucks team that had previously won three of four games.

“They were short a couple players, especially on the back end,” Vigneault said. “A few of their players raised their level, and we had a lot of guys that played all right but not good enough to win.”

Meanwhile, goaltender Cam Talbot has struggled with his stickwork in recent games and has given up a couple of soft goals. Despite these dips in Talbot’s game, Rangers fans shouldn’t have reason for concern.

Talbot has done a terrific job carrying the load for the Rangers since being thrust into the starter’s role on Feb. 4. The 27-year-old is 5-1-2 since taking over for Henrik Lundqvist, who is sidelined due to a sprained blood vessel. Talbot has collected 12 of 16 possible points while Lundqvist has been unavailable.

SKAPSKI TO START IN BUFFALO?

Following Thursday’s defeat, Vigneault opted not to reveal his starting goalie for Friday’s game in Buffalo.

“I haven’t told them yet, no,” Vigneault said. “I haven’t told either one.”

This has led to speculation that 20-year-old backup Mackenzie Skapski could make his first career start and NHL debut against the Buffalo Sabres on Friday night.

Previously, Vigneault downplayed Skapski’s chances of starting.

“Not yet,” Vigneault said on Feb. 12. “I don’t know if you’ve seen him, but he’s just happy to be here.”

The Rangers will face the Sabres at 7 p.m. at First Niagra Center. They do not have a morning skate scheduled. Vigneault will speak to reporters at 5 p.m. in Buffalo.

Talbot has started a career-high eight consecutive games, and Vigneault could opt to give Talbot a breather. That being said, the 74-point Rangers can’t continue dropping points in a tight Metropolitan Division race.

“Right now we need every point we can get,” Talbot said. “We got one big point tonight, but at this time of the season you never want to leave a point on the table.”

Despite his high workload, it would be best for Talbot to start against the Sabres. Skapski is a complete unknown at the NHL level and he lacks experience. Should Skapski make his debut in Buffalo, it will be his first competitive game since late January. He last played in the Hartford Wolf Pack’s 3-1 victory over the Springfield Falcons on Jan. 31.

He appeared in 24 games for the Wolf Pack this season, posting a 12-7-3 record with a 2.38 goals-against average and a .914 save percentage. The woeful Sabres own the league’s worst record at 17-37-4. Friday’s game is the kind of one that you can’t give away by starting a goalie who might be rusty due to a lack of game action.

The second-place Rangers are five points behind the division-leading Islanders and have played three fewer games. The chasing Washington Capitals have won four of five. Washington is currently in third place and even in points with the Rangers. But like the Isles, they’ve played 59 games.

Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.