Marc Staal, seen here pausing after a shot by Penguins’ Matt Cullen goes in against Henrik Lundqvist, needs to stay healthy.
LOS ANGELES — Wheels up, spirits down. The Rangers landed in California on Monday hoping to see more light than just a sunny sky.
It’s misleading to parrot that the Blueshirts have lost two straight for the first time since Dec. 20, though that stat is true, impressive and hard-earned. These Rangers (39-23-7, 85 points) are not a great team at second in the division, fifth in conference and ninth in the NHL. On the contrary, they are strikingly average most nights.
They give themselves a chance to win most games anyway because they are richest in intangibles, goaltending and coaching. But after a stretch of 10-2-1 Feb. 4 through Feb. 29, they have slipped to 2-3-1 in their last six and must acknowledge a worrisome 1-4-1 combined overall record against their two most likely first-round playoff foes, the Islanders (0-2-1) and Penguins (1-2-0).
The schedule isn’t doing them any favors: Their next five opponents are playoff teams, as are nine of their 13 remaining regular season foes. But that will be no excuse. Alain Vigneault and his players know if they play this week the way they played in Sunday afternoon’s 5-3 home loss to the Penguins, they will return from the West Coast in much worse shape than they arrived.
Maybe the Rangers aren’t battling as anxiously for their playoff lives like the Detroit Red Wings or Penguins. Maybe they don’t have a carrot to chase with the Washington Capitals (103 points) locked into first place the way that this week’s trio of opponents in Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose do in the Pacific Division race.
But the Blueshirts must resume channeling urgency that their Stanley Cup window may be closing, because too often lately they have been losing the defensive-zone puck battles that often go to the hungriest player that has entered the corner.
“It comes down to will,” Henrik Lundqvist said Sunday, after his own failure to hug the near post on a penalty kill changed the game with a first-period Patric Hornqvist power-play goal. “This game is all about will and how badly you want it.”
The team’s biggest issue is again its back end, its greatest concern in October, too. The Rangers aren’t moving the puck as quickly as they must. A main reason is that they’re not winning possession to begin with.
Firstly, Marc Staal must stay healthy. The Rangers might have gone 13-6-1 recently without Rick Nash and 2-1-0 without Lundqvist, but when Staal missed five of 11 games from Feb. 17-March 6, the Rangers went 6-0-0 with Staal and 1-4-0 without him. The ailment to watch is Staal’s back, which forced him out of consecutive matches prior to his return for Saturday’s 3-2 overtime loss in Detroit.
Assuming Vigneault’s top six defensemen are healthy, though, consider how often Dan Boyle loses one-on-one battles for the puck in the corner, how he lost a race to Pens forward Bryan Rust before Sidney Crosby’s empty-netter to seal Sunday’s defeat. Kevin Klein too often went into a corner Sunday and came out empty-handed. Dan Girardi’s puck management was poor. Staal is their greatest presence but far from perfect.
Captain Ryan McDonagh and Keith Yandle (five-game point streak, all on the power play) have the skating and offensive abilities to a make a difference. Yandle is finally looking like the man-advantage captain Vigneault needs. But McDonagh’s defense must be more consistent; Yandle’s passing from the back more consistently high-percentage.
This is not all on the defensemen, either. Vigneault called Mats Zuccarello’s flip-out slashing penalty on Pittsburgh’s Ian Cole on Sunday “totally unnecessary.” The coach benched Kevin Hayes, who hasn’t been close to good enough, and Dominic Moore, who must be pining for those four late-February games when Marek Hrivik perfectly complemented him and Tanner Glass before being sent back to the AHL.
One of the greatest frustrations watching the Rangers lately is that when they have a lead, they sit on their heels and play not to lose. Sunday’s defeat to Pittsburgh was even worse because the Rangers often looked like they were employing the same tactic but it wasn’t intentional – they were trapped while trailing or tied, a function of losing puck battles and chasing as a result.
The Rangers playing the best right now is probably center Derek Stepan, who is consistently breaking up opponents’ chances and facilitating goals on offense. He lost an important puck battle recently, too — the late face-off before Cal Clutterbuck’s back-breaking goal in that 6-4 loss to the Islanders on March 6 — but he is excellent at helping his own defensemen regain possession in deep battles for loose pucks.
Stepan’s greatest strength needs to become a team-wide habit beginning Wednesday night against the Ducks. And it must continue Thursday night against the Kings and Saturday afternoon against the Sharks, all the way through one more meeting with both the Penguins (March 27) and Islanders (April 7) into the high-stakes second season.