Backup goalie Antti Raanta couldn’t stop a puck in Sunday evening’s seven-goal first period at the Garden. Most of the Rangers slept through the first 20 minutes of a 6-4 loss to Brooklyn’s Finest. The Islanders improved to 3-0-0 in a one-sided season series that may preview an April first-round postseason clash.
But Blueshirts coach Alain Vigneault singled out arguable team MVP J.T. Miller from an entire roster of underperformers and benched him for all but one 53-second, fourth-line shift of the match’s final 24: 35.
Derick Brassard’s power-play goal at 11:39 of the third tied the game at four before the Islanders’ Cal Clutterbuck roofed the game-winner off a face-off at 18:32. But the Rangers’ comeback does not validate their coach’s decision.
“I just didn’t feel that his game was good enough tonight,” a vague Vigneault said when asked why Miller sat.
Anti Raanta allows one of five goals on Sunday as the Rangers backup struggles against the Islanders.
Miller did have a tough first period. He lost coverage on both of Isles defenseman Johnny Boychuk’s goals in the first, at 2:50 from the slot and at 13:14 from the point. But to punish Miller, 22, this late in the season in this big a game shows a shocking lack of trust in a top-six forward whose desire and production helped carry this team out of the doldrums in January and February.
It was especially unusual because even Vigneault admitted he got “nothing” from any forwards other than the line of Oscar Lindberg (goal), deadline acquisition Eric Staal (goal, assist) and Viktor Stalberg (assist). What made Miller different on Sunday? There were plenty of guys playing worse.
Miller, whose 17 goals rank third on the team behind only linemates Derick Brassard (23) and Mats Zuccarello (21), is without a goal for 13 straight games. But his center, Brassard, seemed equally as culpable on Boychuk’s first goal and turned in a third straight subpar even-strength performance.
J.T. Miller (r.) sees the ice just once in the final 30 minutes as Alain Vigneault basically benches his best player.
Zuccarello’s game has only been here and there, as well.
Yet due to Vigneault’s discretion, that duo received opportunities for redemption while Miller watched mostly Kevin Hayes take his place. Staal and Tanner Glass (goal) made cameos, too.
“We’re getting challenged,” Brassard said of a high-skill line opposing teams treat as a “center of attention.” “The last couple weeks we’ve played a lot of good teams and lines that are challenging us, and that’s never going to be easy as a team, individually as a player, as a line.”
Johnny Boychuk of the Islanders celebrates one of seven first period goals scored between the two teams.
Staal was undoubtedly the brightest spot in his first taste of the Rangers-Islanders rivalry from which he took a souvenir — stitches above his left eyebrow from a first-period Matt Martin wallop into the glass. Boychuk, Brock Nelson and Kyle Okposo put the Islanders up, 3-0, before the five-minute mark. But Staal assisted on Lindberg’s goal at 11:16 and knocked down a Dan Boyle point shot to swipe in his first goal as a Ranger at 13:45 and narrow the Isles’ lead to 4-3.
Staal, Boyle and Glass were the only Rangers ready to play. The Isles went up, 10-0, in shots through the game’s first 10:10, and Clutterbuck rifled the game-winner past Raanta (26 saves) off Casey Cizikas’ face-off win over Derek Stepan. Frans Nielsen added an empty-netter.
Raanta stopped 16 of 17 shots in the final 40 minutes of his first Ranger-Islanders experience, but the first period was a reminder of how badly Henrik Lundqvist (neck spasms) needs to get healthy after not dressing for a second straight game.
Mostly, though, the defeat leaves a bad taste coming off Friday’s win in Washington. It marks their first stretch of two regulation losses in a three-game span since Jan. 24 in Ottawa and Feb. 2 at the Devils straddling the All-Star break.
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