On Easter Sunday, the New York Rangers squandered an early 2-goal lead against the Philadelphia Flyers en route to a 4-2 loss that evened their first round series at one game apiece. The sad part of the loss was that it was entirely preventable. All the Rangers needed to do was watch the game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Columbus Blue Jackets the day before. In that game, the Pens also held a 2-goal lead early in the contest. They then proceeded down a path that allowed their opponent to regain momentum and ultimately win the game–sound familiar? While not all the particulars are the same (the Rangers did not have as much trouble with passing), the similarities are striking. Striking enough to call it a second official case of “Penguinitis”.
Turnovers killed the Rangers on Sunday just as surely as they did the Penguins on Saturday. The Blueshirts gave the puck away more than twice as much as the Flyers did, with Brad Richards and Derek Stepan “leading” the way with 3 apiece. Even the usually rock-solid Ryan McDonagh had two giveaways in the game. In the Stanley Cup Playoffs, puck possession is more than nine tenths of the game. Each giveaway is magnified in importance, as the team that controls the puck can dictate pace and control the game. In game 2, the Flyers did both–thanks in large part to Blueshirt turnovers.
In our earlier series preview, we warned against the Rangers trying to “out-muscle the Flyers”. By this, we mean to avoid getting baited into retaliatory penalties and keep the play “between the whistles”. The Flyers are at their best when they can agitate the other team and provoke them into a physical response after the play is done. In game one (and to some extent, the first period of game 2), the Rangers did not take the bait–and their speed, skill, and puck possession game had the Flyers running in circles. Then came the second period of game two, and the Rangers forgot that lesson. More and more post-whistle scrums developed, with predictable results. In a classic case of Penguinitis, a breakdown in discipline proved fatal to the Rangers chances.
For the most part, it didn’t seem like a lack of communication was a problem for the Rangers in game 2. But then, the Penguinitis reared it’s ugly head again. With time winding down in the third period, and trailing 3-2, the Rangers tried to pull goalie Henrik Lundqvist for an extra skater. I say “tried”, because as Lundqvist got closer to the Rangers bench, the Flyers regained possession of the puck (see “Turnovers”, above). What happened next was a classic breakdown in communications. Lundqvist, knowing that he would be giving Philly an easy goal if he continued to the bench, reversed course to keep protecting the net. At that exact moment, Brad Richards jumped out onto the ice and, instead of jumping back into the bench, continued on into the play. Of course, the Rangers were then called for too many men on the ice–the Penguinitis had sealed their fate.
At first, I wasn’t sure that “arrogance” really fit with what caused the Rangers’ demise in game 2. Upon further review, however, some of the Rangers actions in this game really do appear arrogant. After scoring two quick and easy goals even while the Flyers were setting a blistering pace, they simply stopped moving their feet. The Penguinitis was already starting to flare up late in the first period, when Claude Giroux’s flip pass to Jakub Voracek sailed right over Ryan McDonagh’s head, catching him flat-footed and unable to catch up to Voracek as the speedy winger scored the first Flyer goal.
Now, that was only one play, and does not necessarily indicate a larger problem. However, the flat-footedness continued into the second period and directly led to two more Flyer goals. It was as though the Rangers felt that they could continue outskating the Flyers without actually… you know… skating. If that’s not arrogance, and therefore Penguinitis, I don’t know what is.
But the issues don’t stop there. Even the coaching staff seemed affected by Penguinits. In his post-game interview, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said that he considered the second period “our best period of the night.” He seemed to be writing off the defensive lapses and holding up the Rangers 17-9 advantage in shots for that period. But not all shots are created equal–the Rangers 9 shots in the first period were of much higher quality, and two of those resulted in their only two goals. Instead of continuing to move the puck laterally (forcing Flyers goalie Ray Emery to move side-to-side, where he is weaker), the Rangers second period barrage of shots were almost completely from the outside, with no lateral movement, and no bodies in front of Emery. By allowing Emery time to set up on every single attempt and see the shot coming, they made life easy for him. Whether this is truly Penguinitis or not can be debated–as the Rangers have valued quantity over quality much of the year. It’s why they were second in the NHL in shots during the regular season, but 18th in goals.
Final Diagnosis – Acute Penguinitis
The current playoffs have seen leads disappear by the truckload. It seems no team is immune–even the Columbus Blue Jackets experienced Penguinitis-like-symptoms in their third game against…. the Pittsburgh Penguins. It’s become a full-fledged epidemic–and it’s obviously contagious and spreading. The Rangers have now caught it. The good news is that the effects tend to be short-lived, but as we get further into the first round, a one-game bout of Penguinitis could very well end somebody’s season.