Just a week ago, the New York Rangers seemed to be in a pretty good spot. They were playing well, having claimed seven of a possible eight points, and their apparent line chemistry — a long-awaited occurrence — even led me to write an optimistic article in what has been a season mired in negativity.
Unfortunately, the lines have been shuffled once again, the team has dropped its past three games (including the past two against non-playoff teams when they had a chance to clinch a spot in the tournament with one win), and the negative feelings have returned.
A big source of the negativity throughout the season has been New York’s lack of a killer instinct. It has killed them all year, and it is rearing its ugly head most prominently as the regular season winds down.
Blowing Late Leads
As my THW colleague Steven Loffredo recently wrote, the Rangers have lost a lot of points in the standings as a result of blowing leads in the third period, or giving up late goals when the game is tied. Most recently, it happened against Carolina, a bottom-feeding team, when the Rangers gave away a 3-2 third period lead and lost 4-3 in regulation.
— HockeyStatMiner (@HockeyStatMiner) March 18, 2016
After years of being a lock-down team in the third period (except for the painful 2014 Stanley Cup Final against Los Angeles), that level of mental toughness to shut down the opposition and close out a game has completely abandoned the Rangers this season. Since 2010, the Blueshirts had lost only one regular season game in regulation play when carrying a lead into the third period. This year, they have lost two: the recent loss to the Hurricanes (not reflected in the lost points statistics above), and a loss to the rival New York Islanders back in January.
Killer instinct late in games, which was once a hallmark of this experienced Rangers club, has shockingly been a glaring weakness in 2015-16. What’s worse is that any semblance of a closer’s mentality has been absent from the Rangers in their last two games, where a chance to clinch a playoff spot was staring right at them.
The loss in Carolina especially hurt, as the Rangers not only gave away a lead in the third period, but in not securing the win also failed to clinch a playoff spot. With that much on the line for one period of hockey, it’s unquestionably alarming that they could not step up and seal the deal against a non-playoff team. To add insult to injury, the loss also meant that newcomer Eric Staal could not leave his old team and city with a victory.
Even with that loss, a Saturday home game against another non-playoff team, the Buffalo Sabres, presented New York with a great opportunity to bounce back from the disappointing result in Carolina and officially claim a spot in the postseason. Instead, the Rangers were down 4-1 in the second period before a comeback attempt fell short in what ultimately became a 4-3 loss.
The Rangers will still, in all likelihood, make the playoffs but the fact that they have not gotten the “check mark” next to their name (as head coach Alain Vigneault likes to say) is inexcusable. They have also allowed the surging Pittsburgh Penguins to pass them in the standings, meaning that if the standings hold, they would not have home-ice advantage in a potential first-round matchup against Pittsburgh.
Of course, they could slip down to the first wild card spot, meaning they would actually have a more favorable matchup against the Atlantic Division winner (likely Florida or a banged-up Tampa Bay). Still though, there is a good chance that the Rangers would be playing poorly if they slipped to that spot, which is not something any team wants heading into the postseason.
The Rangers’ lack of a killer instinct, both late in games and late in the season with a lot on the line, has already yielded significant consequences. If the trend continues into the playoffs (assuming the team makes it there), the Blueshirts will be in trouble.