If the New York Rangers can’t start to get back to the inside, they’re going to be on the outside looking in on the NHL Playoffs yet again.
For the second straight postseason series, the Blueshirts are demonstrating an inability or unwillingness to get to the front of the opponents’ net – a flaw that proved fatal in the Eastern Conference Final last season, and one that threatens to again sink their Stanley Cup hopes in the form of another blown series lead.
The Rangers’ first-round matchup with the New Jersey Devils is beginning to resemble their loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2022 East final: A fast start to the series that in both cases pushed the Blueshirts out to a 2-0 lead, an adjustment by their opponent designed to keep the Rangers away from the goalmouth, a failure to react adequately to that adjustment by being more determined to get to the front, and the series lead subsequently going up in smoke.
Last year, the Rangers didn’t win again after Tampa Bay tied it up at 2, with the Lightning going on to take four straight to reach the Stanley Cup Final. Does the same fate await the Blueshirts this year, this time against their area rivals two rounds earlier?
“How many times did you see us whipping pucks across and them picking ’em off in the middle?” a seething coach Gerard Gallant said after the Rangers’ 3-1 defeat in Game 4 on March 24, his team’s second straight at home after posting a pair of near-perfect victories in Newark. “Just the old recipe when you look like you’re tired or a little bit lazy, that’s what happens.”
Rangers in Danger of a Repeat of 2022 Playoffs
The parallels between the Rangers’ last two playoff series are impossible to ignore. The Blueshirts dictated the tempo and controlled play against the Lightning last year for the first two contests (those were at Madison Square Garden), winning by a combined 9-4 score and appearing in control. Then the going got tough, with Tampa tightening up defensively and challenging the Rangers to fight their way to the crease in front of goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. They were utterly unable to do so over the final four games, during which they managed five goals.
The Blueshirts were even more dominant in Games 1 and 2 at the Prudential Center in this series, with the Devils looking utterly outclassed and unprepared for the moment in a pair of 5-1 losses, during which the Rangers played lockdown team defense and a crisp, simple, straight-ahead game.
Like 2022, though, a response by the opponent was coming – and the Rangers, of all teams, should have known it. While the Devils certainly played well in Games 3 and 4, they were hardly their famously smothering championship predecessors of 1995. New Jersey simply did what the Lightning did last year – keep pucks to the outside in their own zone, bottle up the neutral zone, force the Rangers’ highly-skilled forwards along the walls and dare them to summon the will to get back into the middle, which they occupied consistently in the first two contests. The Blueshirts wouldn’t or couldn’t in managing one goal each time, falling 2-1 in overtime in Game 3.
“We tried to do it all on one play instead of chipping away and earning our chances,” said No. 1 center Mika Zibanejad, without a goal in the four games after scoring 39 in the regular season. “We have to get back to the way we played during the season. We have to trust each other.”
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Failing to be able to chip away in a playoff game has been a concern for this team for some time. As impressive and deep as their roster looked going into this postseason, questions remained as to whether the Rangers would be able to overcome the deficiencies that led to their demise against the Lightning last year. Whether it’s an issue of personnel – in line with their historical DNA, the club is loaded with high-end skill but little in the way of big, hard-edged forwards – or a lack of moxie to bull through the defensive structure of a determined playoff opponent, that query has not been adequately answered after four games against the Devils.
Again, none of this should come as a surprise to Gallant’s club. Playoff games always inevitably descend into slogs, mucky affairs in which teams need to adapt to come out on top. These Rangers have yet to prove they can consistently excel when what they do well – puck possession, playing fast, moving it quickly – gets taken away. With their power play having gone dormant after delivering four goals in Games 1 and 2, the Blueshirts’ struggles to generate offense at even strength have grown even more pronounced.
The Rangers managed only 23 shots on goal in Game 4 after getting 36 in Game 3.
“It’s playoff hockey. It’s clogged up out there,” said center Vincent Trocheck, who scored the Rangers’ lone goal in Game 4 off a rebound from in close and who, along with Chris Kreider, have been the only Blueshirts forwards that have exhibited the desire to crash the New Jersey net.
Like Pre-Championship Lightning, Rangers Seem Unwilling to Adapt
The Lightning’s path to back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2020 and 2021 is well-documented: A high-flying offensive group that kept failing in the playoffs when their world-class skill was stifled finally broke through when they decided to embrace the grind of the postseason, prioritizing north-south play and getting down in the trenches to deliver the ugly goals that are a must to win 16 times during the tournament.
Tampa Bay, though, needed years for the lesson to sink in, enduring year after year of playoff heartache along the way. Can the Rangers draw from that hard-earned wisdom, or do they need to experience their own postseason pain before realizing what it takes to navigate through to a Cup?
That route to championship glory runs down the center of the ice. If the Blueshirts can’t force their way back to it, their 2023 Playoffs could end feeling like deja vu, 2022-style.