The first period of Game Four, the 85th game this season, marked rock bottom for the 2015-16 New York Rangers.
The team peaked in February to the tune of a 10-4 month and sat in second place in the Metropolitan Division on March 1. Poised to have home-ice for a majority of the playoffs, the team with two straight final four finishes seemed set for another deep playoff run. Games at Madison Square Garden were more important than usual following a regular season that saw a record of 27-10-4 at home, contrasted with 19-17-5 on the road. Despite these indicators, the Rangers would not finish the season strong.
Whilst the Penguins surged to the finish like a team hungry to succeed the Rangers turned on what appeared to be auto-pilot. They would go 9-10 down the stretch in March and April including three losses to their eventual opening round opponent, two losses to the rival Islanders and back to back losses to non-playoff teams in the Sabres and Hurricanes.
Speculation could conclude any number of reasons for why a playoff tested team and widely considered Stanley Cup contender would finish a season with that type of uninspired play. A plausible theory is that after two straight deep playoff runs they believed that only making the playoffs was sufficient and things would figure themselves out once the “Stanley Cup Playoffs” logos were painted on the rink. The unfortunate naïveté of this approach is a callous underestimation of the forces of momentum and home-ice advantage.
These are the events that led to a Rangers team on the brink of elimination following an embarrassing loss at home paired with well-deserved intermittent boos from their own fans and the rarified event of a Henrik Lundqvist mid game pull in a playoff game. Aside from the events, what are some of the reasons?
Firstly, any Rangers fan watching night in and night out can tell you that Lundqvist is not the problem. This team has failed to match their goaltender’s ability and effort for much of his illustrious career. Last time the Rangers found themselves in this position, down 3-1 to the Penguins, it was their knight in leg pads and shining armor who let up a goal per game in the final three to carry them to the next round. This wasn’t an isolated incident, in another series from 2012-13 Lundqvist pitched two straight shutouts to give the Rangers a seven-game series win over the Capitals. The Swedish netminder turned 34 this year and the stunning possibility that he may retire without a championship is inching ever closer to reality.
The Rangers find themselves on the brink of their shortest season since 2010-11. The writing has been on the wall since March as they have failed to play with the kind of tenacity necessary to beat anyone in the playoffs much less Buffalo and Carolina. Some of the problems aren’t readily obvious outside the locker room but the talent of this team contrasted with what they have achieved of late and this season’s impending doom leaves a lot of unsatisfied fans and questions to be answered.
The stretch of games from March 1 through what will likely be a season finale in short order is the worst played stretch in the Alain Vigneault era and may be worse than the team ever looked under the previous regime of John Tortorella. The first fingers will be pointed at Vigneault and a team playing uninspired during an important stretch makes all criticism deserved. After a 3-0 first period in Game 4, the fiery nature of Tortorella may have been just what the doctor ordered with an on-ice performance that seemed passive and disinterested. Instead, John Giannone described the situation between the boards as he heard the Rangers coach repeat a platitude to the effect of “Let’s get it going guys.” They didn’t get it going.
Vigneault seemed to be the last person to recognize the ineptitude of Dan Girardi, as chronicled in this TSN piece, it is unclear whether he has even caught up at this point or if Girardi would be playing on the top line if healthy. Along with this mismanagement of the blue line is a trend of having young players lose confidence, evidenced in the peculiar streakiness of Kreider, Miller, Hayes and Lindberg the final two were healthy scratches in the playoffs this year after being sweethearts of the coaching staff. As far as assistant coaches, the powerplay been a constantly delegated focus and for the 230,564th straight season (numbers approximated) it was sub par especially when needed most.
All the blame cannot be restricted to those standing on the bench. The front office didn’t learn from Wade Redden or Scott Gomez or (insert any number of old names here) and trotted Dan Boyle out on a nightly basis when it was clear from early on that he could no longer keep up with top level opposing forwards. Along with this failure are the numerous what-ifs of the last three deadline deals only one of which, acquiring Keith Yandle, appears to have been prudent.
Ultimately the game is played on the ice and that is where the team has failed to deliver to the tune of 10 wins and 13 losses in the past three months. The perpetual lack of scoring in the playoffs across the roster has let down the fans, the coaches, and the goaltender. At a certain point excuses, problems, and solutions don’t matter, results do. As 15 teams looked to go all in during playoff games, the Rangers skated in mud for the last quarter of the season and in all but two periods of the playoffs thus far. A sign of their ineptitude is a mark of 0 goals in first periods while playing Matt Murray and Jeff Zatkoff. While teams like the Kings and Blackhawks come out of the gate flying, the Rangers have come out crawling. That is why they are likely to head home early. There are few things more tragic than wasted talent, the Rangers talent simply was capable of much more than what they are scheduled to achieve this season. Hopefully, they can show some fight before bowing out, there is always 2016-17 and momentum matters.