Ranger Danger: Blueshirts Living On The Edge

The New York Rangers are on an absolute tear. Through the weekend, they had won six of their past seven games and had also gained at least one point in eight straight. And all of this has happened in the absence of star goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. So besides Lundqvist being out, everything is great in the Big Apple, right?

Well…not quite.

Blowing Leads But Still Winning

When one looks at the Rangers’ play a little more closely, a troubling trend becomes apparent: they are not holding on to leads, particularly in the third period. What’s incredible is that despite this pattern, the Rangers remain the best in the NHL — statistically speaking — in locking down games where they have a lead after two periods. In fact, it’s been going on for quite some time now.

For those wondering, the lone loss in that 150-game stretch was a 3-2 defeat last season in Boston against the Bruins on November 29, 2013 (which happened to be Black Friday). New York held a 2-1 lead after two periods in that matinee affair but was unable to ultimately gain even one point as the Bruins came back to win in regulation. That means that this season, the Rangers are undefeated in regulation when holding a lead after the first two periods. But they have had some close calls lately. As a matter of fact, in four of their past eight victories, they have given up a lead of at least two goals at least once in the game — only to of course bounce back and win. In another game, at home against Vancouver, they squandered three one-goal leads and were not as fortunate, suffering a shootout loss (but nevertheless securing one point in the standings).

Correlation With Lundqvist’s Injury?

Well, yes — if we are speaking scientifically, then there is definitely a strongly positive correlation with the Rangers’ inability to hold leads and the absence of their brilliant netminder, as this has been going on mostly since Lundqvist was placed on injured reserve. But is Cam Talbot’s presence in New York’s goal causing this disturbing trend? In some respects, it probably is.

However, he is not solely to blame. Let’s take a look at New York’s recent stretch of games where they had multi-goal leads erased.

Against the Florida Panthers at home on February 2, the Rangers raced out to a 3-1 lead midway through the second period. The Panthers, though, would tie it at 3-3 before the second period even concluded. The Rangers would then rebound in the third period to score three goals en route to a 6-3 victory whose final score did not explain the difficulty of the contest for the victors.

The absence of Henrik Lundqvist certainly is not helping the Rangers when it comes to holding on to leads. (Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports)
The absence of Henrik Lundqvist certainly is not helping the Rangers when it comes to holding on to leads. (Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports)

Lundqvist was actually in goal for that contest; it was the game after he took a shot off his throat against Carolina. It was not until after the Florida game that the Rangers’ medical staff detected something potentially more problematic and made the call to have Lundqvist stay out of action indefinitely, with what was termed a “vascular injury.” So anyway, this blown lead could not be attributed to Talbot. But perhaps Lundqvist was not quite himself. In any event, this was the beginning of the Rangers’ troubling-yet-somehow-fruitful spate of games.

Talbot Takes Over

Talbot started the Rangers’ next game against Boston and helped the Rangers to a hard-fought 3-2 victory on home ice. Then, after a tough weekend that saw them lose close decisions to a strong Nashville Predators club (3-2 in Nashville) and a desperate Dallas Stars team (3-2 in overtime at home), the seed planted in the Florida game began to bloom when the Rangers took on the sinking (or should I say, “falling”, even though it’s not that season) Maple Leafs in Toronto. New York jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead against the porous Leafs defense. They later held leads of 3-1 and then 4-2, which was the score when they entered the third period.

Toronto, though, would not go away, cutting the lead to 4-3 immediately after the third period began, on a goal by Morgan Rielly. Not too long after that, Daniel Winnik tied the game for the Leafs, courtesy of a fluky bounce off the stick of Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh. Nevertheless, despite their sudden predicament, the Rangers would wake back up and retake the lead for good on Mats Zuccarello’s second goal of the game, giving them a 5-4 win that was much harder than it had to be.

This was one of Talbot’s worst games since he took over the starting goalie job in Lundqvist’s absence. Yes, the goal he allowed to Rielly early in the third period was partially the product of poor coverage by the Rangers’ defense, but it was still a stoppable shot. And although there wasn’t much he could do about the bad bounce on the tying goal, he also gave up a very weak goal earlier in the game on a long shot from Stephane Robidas.

A similar affair against a similarly weak defensive team ensued in Denver when the Rangers faced off against the Colorado Avalanche. The Blueshirts took a 3-1 lead into the third period, only to see the Avalanche tie it up early in the frame. It was yet another late two-goal lead given up by the Rangers. But again, once there was renewed urgency in the game, the visitors seemed to reawaken, tallying three straight goals on their way to a not-so-pretty 6-3 win.

This one was not really Talbot’s fault. There was nothing he could do on Jarome Iginla’s goal that made it a 3-2 game, as Martin St. Louis’s awful giveaway hung the goalie out to dry. Jan Hejda’s tying marker was mainly the result of bad coverage. What was more alarming was that the Rangers again got outplayed for much of the third period — they were out-shot 16-8 — after dominating play in the first two frames (where they held a 23-13 advantage in shots on goal). In Toronto, the pattern was nearly the same. The Rangers had a 31-16 edge in shots over the first two periods, but were out-shot 18-8 in the third. Some of the issue of blowing leads is on Talbot, but a lot of it is on New York’s overall team play.

The next edition of “The Rangers Give Up a Lead in the Third Period But Still Get At Least a Point Anyway” came at home in the aforementioned matchup with Vancouver on February 19. Ironically, the Blueshirts’ previous game against the rival Islanders saw a somewhat opposite scenario — it was the Rangers who came from behind after being down by two in the third period, and actually won 6-5.

Against the Canucks, the Rangers led 1-0, 2-1, and then 4-3 in the third period (they had actually trailed 3-2 prior to that). As time was winding down, it looked as though New York would hold on for another victory. But Henrik Sedin tied it up for the Canucks with two minutes left, and his team went on to win in a shootout.

Although Talbot was not great in giving up four goals and then two more in the shootout, the game-tying goal was more so the result of unfortunate puck luck, as Canucks defenseman Dan Hamhuis actually fanned on his shot partially, which threw everyone off as the puck went right to Sedin who deposited it into an open net. But the Rangers were once again at their worst in the third period, where they were out-shot 12-6. By contrast, they out-shot Vancouver 26-15 over the first two periods.

This ugly pattern got even worse for New York in Sunday’s game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, a tougher team to face than their record would suggest, as they have been destroyed by injuries all year long. The Rangers again got off to a quick start, taking advantage of a tired Columbus team that had lost in Montreal the night before. New York dominated the first period and took a 2-0 lead into the second, where they quickly made it 3-0 on Martin St. Louis’s second goal of the contest.

The Jackets, however, answered right back to cut the Rangers’ lead to 3-1. Then they started to pick up the play as the Rangers seemed to sit back on their lead. Columbus got it to 3-2 before the end of the frame, setting up the Rangers for yet another lackluster third period. The Rangers’ defense was better, as they did not allow the Blue Jackets too many quality chances. That said, the Blueshirts managed only one shot on goal in the third period, as they simply did not have the same tenacity and attack-mentality that they had for the first half of the game.

Then Talbot made a mistake when he tried to redirect a long slap shot by David Savard out of play to get his team a whistle after an extended shift in the defensive zone. Unfortunately, the puck went off his stick and straight into the net behind him, tying the score at 3.

It was another episode of what has become an unnecessary drama series for the Rangers, whereby they squander leads through a combination of defensive lapses, overly relaxed play, and shaky goaltending from Talbot. Incredibly though, they keep finding ways to win, as they ultimately took the victory in a shootout.

Talbot was not hesitant to take the blame for Savard’s tying goal late in the third period.

“I don’t think it did (deflect in on the way to the net),” said Talbot. “The video guy said the same thing. I thought it came in, it was a long shift, they were cycling a lot and I was trying to angle it out of play. It took a weird bounce off my stick. I got it up but right into my own net.” (Ranger Rants)

 

Talbot’s teammates, however, also took responsibility for their relaxed play after they went up 3-0, as well as their poor third period.

“We talk all the time about trying to find ways,” said St. Louis, who had two goals against Columbus. “Obviously up three goals, it’s not the way you are trying to get two points. We should have pulled away and closed it out. But at the end of the day you find a way. We stopped making plays (in the third period). You’ve got to have the puck a little more. We know they are coming and they are going to be taking chances. Still, we need to find ways to make more plays, keep generating and separate ourselves a little bit. We didn’t do that.” (Ranger Rants)

Going Forward

The Rangers are playing with fire and they know it. It’s great that they are closing in on first place in the Metropolitan Division, and that they are winning games while their star goalie is out. But if they do not stop blowing leads, they are soon going to start losing more of these games — perhaps even in regulation. Not to mention, this is not a habit they want to be trying to shake off when the playoffs come around.

Talbot’s inconsistent play has very much been a part of the equation that has led to the Rangers giving up leads with regularity. So too though, has been the play of his teammates collectively, and likely to an even greater extent.

“Our third period has got to be a lot better,” said leading scorer Rick Nash. “The last ten-game stretch we’ve given away leads and we have to hunker down on that.” (blueshirtsunited.com)

The eventual return of Lundqvist should help alleviate this issue, but the Rangers — regardless of who is in net — need to play better with leads, and especially in the third period. Otherwise, their sudden tendency to live dangerously could ultimately catch up with them, especially as they play against better teams than Toronto, Colorado, and Columbus.