Henrik Lundqvist gets no help in front of him in Saturday’s loss to the Sharks– which exposed a lot of weaknesses for the Rangers.
It is difficult to overstate how devastating the Rangers’ no-show performance in San Jose felt on Saturday afternoon, coming this late in the season for a team that supposedly intends to challenge for a Stanley Cup.
Henrik Lundqvist was sharp and looks ready for a playoff run, but his teammates don’t look prepared to hop on for the ride.
“As a group here, we need to figure this one out,” Lundqvist said.
That includes Alain Vigneault, who probably thought he had found a playoff-ready lineup after Wednesday night’s 2-1 victory in Anaheim. Now, after flying home Saturday night and giving his Rangers (40-24-8, 88 points) Sunday off, the head coach must rethink everything entering Monday night’s visit from the Atlantic Division-leading Florida Panthers (40-23-9, 89 points) with just 10 games to play.
First things first: Kevin Hayes hasn’t earned the privilege to dress if he is going to revert to his season-long habit of turning the puck over and watching the play develop the other way. The hard-working Oscar Lindberg is plenty capable of taking his place.
Captain Ryan McDonagh doesn’t point fingers, but he perfectly captured Hayes’ lazy turnover and sluggish back-check prior to Joel Ward’s goal on Saturday.
“Our group is usually pretty smart about understanding when it’s time to try and make a play and when it’s time to get a puck in and work hard to get a puck out and really defend the front of our net and defend hard there,” McDonagh said. “We didn’t make those smart plays when we did have the puck, and there weren’t many times we came up with it the way we battled and competed.”
McDonagh and the defensive corps, though, are at the heart of the Rangers’ execution issues.
Dan Girardi has found nowhere to hide. All six of Vigneault’s blue liners bear varying degrees of blame. Dylan McIlrath (right knee cap injury, week-to-week) could re-enter when healthy, but a one-for-one swap would be a minor fix.
The defense’s puck management can be more aptly described as risk management lately, including three McDonagh turnovers to open Saturday’s defeat.
The Blueshirts’ 1-2-2 record in their last five is also due to Derick Brassard’s line being outplayed on a nearly nightly basis. Brassard and Mats Zuccarello apparently are not reliable enough away from the puck to be able to play together, and now the team’s top two scorers aren’t producing, either.
The Rangers are in danger of slipping from the Metropolitan Division two seed to a wild-card and perhaps facing the Panthers in the first round.
The Rangers’ most alarming deficiency in San Jose was what McDonagh described as not “working extremely hard for each other” or “competing.” This late in the season that’s not a hiccup. That’s a characteristic of your team.
“I feel like there’s only one way to win hockey games,” Lundqvist said, “and that’s by playing hard and smart. And if you’re missing that a little bit against a good team, it’s gonna be tough.”