In arguably the most pitiful performance in recent team history, the New York Rangers were blown out 5-0 on home ice by the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday night. The loss pushed the Rangers to the brink of elimination, a 3-1 hole that is all-too-familiar for the Blueshirts. The Rangers have been able to overcome such a deficit in each of the last two postseasons, but a team can only dance with their feet on the fire for so long before being burned. This is that year.
For starters, give Pittsburgh a ton of credit for finding a way to get Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin rolling in the playoffs. Mike Sullivan’s team of quick, relentlessly working skaters have forced the Rangers into too many mistakes, and the additions of Patric Hornqvist and Phil Kessel have helped to take the scoring pressure off of the centerpieces of the franchise. What the Penguins lacked in recent seasons was solid work from their third and fourth lines. This year, it’s the Rangers depth that has been put to the test, and they are failing.
Yes, referee decisions have been bad. Pittsburgh was not punished for Matt Lovejoy’s dangerous hit on Derek Stepan (who needed to undergo concussion tests), and Kris Letang has gotten away with several stick infractions, the most egregious of which was a seemingly purposeful slash to the head of Viktor Stalberg. But bad calls happen all the time in the NHL, for and against all teams. It’s no excuse.
In a way, this series has been the Rangers season in a nutshell. Inconsistent offense, inconsistent powerplay (which has gone ice cold), terrible penalty kill, and a defensive core that, with the exception of Keith Yandle and green-as-grass Brady Skjei, has eroded. Perhaps we should have seen this coming from the Rangers. But not even the most pie-in-the-sky fans expected it to be this clear cut. The Rangers simply don’t belong in the same class that the Penguins are. Not after Game 3, where they mustered only 17 shots against Matt Murray, the rookie goaltender who made his first career playoff start. Not last night, when before the seats were even warm did the Rangers find themselves behind 1-0 after J.T. Miller was beaten to a rebounded shot which Eric Fehr put past Henrik Lundqvist.
From there, it only got worse. A few minutes later Rick Nash took a questionable interference penalty in front of the net. Not even 30 seconds into it, the Penguins score a goal that takes multiple deflections on its way past Lundqvist. The Rangers were then unable to take advantage of two Penguins penalties, probably to the chagrin of Mike Sullivan, who was run out of town along with former coach John Tortorella partly for the team’s woeful power play. To cap the first period off, Kevin Klein whiffs on a pass attempt, and Conor Sheary streaks to the other end of the ice to snipe in a third goal off of Lundqvist.
Inconsistent offense? Check. Can’t kill a penalty? Check. Can’t even generate o-zone possession during a power play? Check. Spotty work from the blue line? Check.
The signs were there in Game 3. All season, the Rangers failed to close out periods. In the second period on Tuesday night, Marc Staal takes a hooking penalty with a minute remaining, and lo and behold, the Penguins score before the period ends. The Rangers have looked dead since.
Alain Vigneault, the Rangers head coach, should not escape criticism. After falling down in the series 1-0, he put heavy-hitting Dylan McIlrath into the line-up for Game 2. The Rangers checked and pummeled Pittsburgh into submission, racking up franchise playoff record 60 hits in Game 2. McIlrath himself didn’t have any, but his presence as the security dog changed the physical level of play. In Game 3, he opted to scratch McIlrath and start Ryan McDonagh, who is still recovering from a partially broken hand he sustained three weeks ago. McDonagh’s limitations offensively have been noticeable, especially for a team which already lacks a strong shot from the point even with a healthy McDonagh. He is the captain, and an all-star defenseman, so he is undoubtedly going to want to play. Now that he’s playing, it’s impossible to remove him from the lineup. The question is should he have been brought back at all?
Dan Boyle, who also played in Game 3 and Game 4 instead of McIlrath. Boyle’s largest contribution has been to collide with Yandle on the play that set up Matt Cullen’s eventual game-winning goal in Game 3. Add that to Marc Staal not improving from a terrible season, poor play recently from Klein, and the inexperience of Skjei, and one has to wonder why McIlrath has not seen more action. Without his presence, the Rangers have tried to bulldoze through Pittsburgh, which might have worked in past years where the Penguins bottom six forwards could get bullied and cough up the puck. It also worked when the Rangers had physical players like Brian Boyle and Derek Dorsett to do the checking on the third and fourth lines, instead of Tanner Glass
If the Rangers are to turn it around, they need to start by possessing the puck and find a way through the neutral zone, which Pittsburgh has flooded in the two games at Madison Square Garden. They shouldn’t quit the physical play. If the Rangers have the right personnel for it, as they did in Game 2, its effective. McIlrath is the key to making it work. Sit Boyle, put in the kid. Finally, finishing scoring chances has to be done with much more quality. As mentioned, they had only 17 shots in Game 3, but they attempted 33 shots, and had five attempts miss the net completely. Last night too, Chris Kreider and Eric Stahl each missed the net in the first period on point blank deflected shots.
The Rangers are built to win now. Henrik Lundqvist will soon be old for a goaltender. The team has taken on a loan on its future by sacrificing their salary cap, their young talent, and their draft picks in order to pay for players who can win now. Pretty soon, they’ll have to pay off the debt. Players’ contract will outweigh their value (i.e. Dan Girardi); young players will require a pay raise (Kreider, Miller, Jesper Fast, etc.); star players will want star salaries (the soon-to-be free agent Yandle). If the Rangers can’t turn it around for the next three games, that window of opportunity slowly slides closer to being shut.