Rangers Begin December: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Heading into this week of hockey, the New York Rangers looked to be turning their season around and heading in the right direction. After a maddening two months of Jekyll-and-Hyde hockey, they had finally started to put together a number of good 60-minute games.  Before this month started they had put up back-to-back wins against their arch-rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers, defeating them 3-0 in Philadelphia on November 28, and winning 5-2 at MSG on the 29th. These two wins capped off a stretch where they had four wins over five games.

Then the calendar flipped over to December, and everything changed. All the progress that the Rangers had made over the past few games was lost, and then some. Not only did the defensive lapses re-appear, but they were now coupled with a visible lack of effort. The “December Rangers” have so far been a team with too many passengers and too few drivers–and it’s showing in the results.

Game 1: A Step Forward… Then Two Steps Back

The first game of December for the Rangers brought at least some forward progress, even though the end result was a loss. They stuck with a very tough opponent in the Tampa Bay Lightning–for two periods at least. They were able to control the play for a good portion of the first two periods, but two giveaways led to Lightning goals, and the same old fragile Rangers re-appeared. Even more ominous, it appeared that their will to compete had disappeared in the final period. As fast and strong as they looked in the first period, the team looked lost and slow in the third. Think that’s an exaggeration? Here is Kevin Hayes’ goal from the first period:

And here is Brett Connolly’s power play goal in the third period. The turnaround was so complete, it looks like the two teams switched jerseys halfway through the game. The Rangers are half-heartedly chasing the Lightning around the zone, letting them skate wherever they want, and the result is predictable.

In case that wasn’t enough, we’ll close this section with the coup de grace, an empty net goal where the play of John Moore sums up where the Rangers were as a team at this point–lost.

Game 2: Another Step Forward… Two More Steps Back

“Second verse, same as the first.”  The Rangers had the next five days off to let that loss simmer–and hopefully light a fire under their collective behinds. For the first period (again), they looked like the better team. They controlled the play against the Detroit Red Wings, but couldn’t manage more than a pair of goals. And then, again, when the mistakes came, the team’s resolve faltered. Many players were coasting or standing still while the Wings scored two goals in the second period, and then again when Detroit went ahead in the third period. Even multiple penalties by the Red Wings in the third period, including an extended 5-on-3, couldn’t spark the Rangers to put in the tying goal.

The Aftermath

Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault is usually calm and soft-spoken. But he wasn’t about to mince words after the loss to Detroit. He even brought out the “L”-word (“lazy”) to describe the team’s back-checking effort in the game. He was every bit a frustrated with the team the next day in practice, yelling to make his point that nobody should be standing still.

“I don’t want anybody standing still,” Vigneault barked at his players during a drill early in practice. — Jim Cerny (blueshirtsunited.com)

Vigneault is right–but will the team listen? They appear to still have confidence problems. Mistakes are fixable, but motivation and confidence need to grow from the inside. And that seems to be what’s really ailing these Rangers right now. Can they turn it around? It won’t get any easier–their next game against the Pittsburgh Penguins comes quickly on Monday.  And then they have another five-day break. A win heading into that break could go a long way towards rebuilding their confidence and motivation.