The New York Rangers have started to improve after their horrific month of December, where they not only compiled a paltry record of 4-7-2, but did so while playing some embarrassingly bad defense.
Now, the Rangers are at least no longer abysmal in their own end, but still have enough lapses that they have not been able to string together two straight wins since November 21-23. Oftentimes they look mostly good enough to win, but make just enough mistakes to lose, as those mistakes always seem to end up in the back of their net.
As the season goes on, New York will have to reverse several trends, such as giving up back-breaking goals early and late in periods, struggling away from home a year after being the gold standard for road play in the NHL, poor penalty killing, and occasional (though at least not regular anymore) defensive lapses that leave opponents wide open at the goal crease.
Perhaps the most alarming trend, though, is the club’s inability to effectively handle adversity.
When it Rains it Pours
Over the past few years, where the Rangers have made deep runs in the postseason, they have shown a mental toughness and gained great experience in coming through in pressure-packed situations. That’s what makes the team’s sudden fragility this year so disconcerting and perplexing.
It was at its worst in December, where the Rangers would often yield piles of goals after giving up one critical score (games against Edmonton, Calgary, Washington, and Nashville come to mind). Still though, even as they are no longer looking so inept so consistently on the defensive side of the game, they have a tendency to fold when things get tough.
Take last week’s loss to the New York Islanders as an example. The Rangers were playing a strong road game (okay, as it was in Brooklyn, it was really almost a home game) and carried a 1-0 lead into the third period. Then some sloppy plays in their own end resulted in the Islanders tying the game. At 1-1, the Rangers just needed to forget about that goal and keep playing the way they were before. But instead, they took a penalty shortly thereafter and promptly gave up the go-ahead goal, eventually losing 3-1 after a late empty-netter.
Then there was Sunday’s road loss against the Washington Capitals, the top team in the NHL. New York played a strong first period and scored the game’s first goal. They were in control until they got into penalty trouble and gave up a power play goal to Alex Ovechkin from the left circle (that’s never happened before…).
At 1-1 in the second period, they were still playing reasonably well until yet another penalty resulted in them falling behind 2-1. Now trailing in a game where they had done a lot of things well, instead of rallying back, the Rangers faded away. They gave up another goal in short order to go down 3-1, and though they did cut it to 3-2, that was as close as they would get, playing a poor third period en route to a 5-2 defeat.
If the Rangers are to make another strong playoff run this season, they will have to rediscover the mental toughness that they have inexplicably abandoned this season.
Is This What the Rangers Are?
That said, the Rangers might very well go through the rest of the season this way, which is an even scarier thought. A slump over the course of a couple of weeks is one thing. But when a team plays mediocre hockey for more than half a season, that is usually a sign that they are simply a mediocre team.
That is what the Blueshirts are looking like right now. Their record is a fairly pedestrian 24-16-5, and they are lucky to be that good, given their hot start. A string of tactical issues and a consistent undercurrent of fragility have undermined what was not long ago one of the elite teams in the NHL.
With most of the core players from the team’s days of elite status still intact, there are not any obvious explanations for why the club has played this whole season through a general malaise. Maybe it’s fatigue from their long past few seasons. Maybe age is catching up with some key players (Dan Girardi and Marc Staal come to mind), and they are worn down both physically and mentally, leaving them less equipped to handle adversity and high-leverage moments.
Whatever it is though, now that the team is more than halfway through the regular season, it might be wishful thinking to believe that things will dramatically improve, barring somewhat of a shakeup. Hopefully the Rangers’ front office is coming to the same realization.