Over the past month-plus, the New York Rangers have not played a consistently strong brand of hockey, but have found ways to win, largely on the back of Cam Talbot, who caught fire in Henrik Lundqvist’s absence after some initial struggles.
This poor play, however, might have started to catch up with them, as the Blueshirts dropped their second straight game on Sunday in a 5-2 loss to the Washington Capitals. It’s the first time the Rangers have lost back-to-back games in regulation since late January, but for a team that has already clinched a playoff spot, that is really not the main area of concern. Rather, it’s the manner in which they’ve been losing, and the fact that there is finally evidence that they cannot keep getting away with their inconsistent play.
The warning signs were quite prominent in the Rangers’ 2-1 victory at home over the Florida Panthers back on March 15. Despite the win, New York was outplayed and outworked for the vast majority of the game. Talbot, who had 39 saves in that game, was the only reason the home team came out victorious. The Panthers, fighting for their playoff lives, were clearly the hungrier team and dominated puck possession.
Panthers 39 shots on net, 36 attempts blocked, 23 shots miss the net. Total of 98 attempts. Rangers had 34-8-10–52
— Andrew Gross (@AGrossRecord) March 16, 2015
After then losing a tough 1-0 game to the Chicago Blackhawks, who were playing their second of a back-to-back, the Rangers turned in another poor effort but prevailed over the lowly Carolina Hurricanes, 3-2 in a shootout. New York took a 2-1 lead into the third period but once again got completely outworked by a Hurricanes team that did not have much to play for. Carolina out-shot the visitors 17-6 in the period and ultimately tied the game goal before the Rangers won the coin toss that is the shootout.
A resounding 7-2 victory the next day over the division-leading Anaheim Ducks seemed to demonstrate that the Rangers had broken out of their lethargic ways, but then they got pushed around by the defending champion Los Angeles Kings two nights later, in a 4-2 loss that wasn’t even that close. While the Kings were and are a desperate team battling to make the playoffs, one would have thought the Rangers would have come out with a little more fire against the team that ended their Stanley Cup dreams last season.
After the loss to the Kings, captain Ryan McDonagh called out the Rangers’ issues, and how they cannot let things slip out of control as they head into the playoffs.
“I think if we are honest with ourselves as a group, we have been flirting a fine line as far as playing consistent throughout the game this last stretch,” said McDonagh. “We’ve been finding ways to win and that’s great, but down the stretch here and going into the end of the season here, we can’t let this slip and become a factor.” (Ranger Rants).
However, the Rangers followed a strong 5-1 win against a hot Ottawa team and the “Hamburglar” (goalie Andrew Hammond) with a brutal road game against another desperate team, the Boston Bruins. It was another 4-2 loss that was more lopsided than the final score indicated, and the Blueshirts left star goaltender Henrik Lundqvist — who was playing in his first game in nearly two months after sitting out with a vascular injury — completely out to dry.
With a chance to get back in the win column the very next day at home against the equally hungry Capitals, the Rangers looked decent in the first two periods, playing to a 2-2 tie heading into the third. From that point tough, the Caps took over the game and rolled to a 5-2 victory. They out-shot the Rangers 14-7 in the final frame. Goalie Cam Talbot summed it up pretty simply:
Talbot: “They had the will to win (in the third) and we didn’t.” — Steve Zipay (@stevezipay) March 29, 2015
In addition to being outworked in the third period against Washington, the Rangers were also guilty of numerous defensive breakdowns and giveaways, for which the Capitals made them pay. These defensive miscues have been another disturbing trend for New York over the past couple of weeks, especially in their three recent losses to Los Angeles, Boston, and Washington.
Against the Capitals, Keith Yandle had easily his worst game as a Ranger, committing several giveaways in the third period, including one that led to the game-winning goal by Jason Chimera.
Yandle is not solely to blame, however. It’s been a team-wide trend for a little while now. In their prior loss at Boston, Matt Hunwick had an awful turnover that led to Carl Soderberg’s breakaway goal that put the Bruins up 3-0 in the first period.
The Rangers’ defeat at the hands of the Kings also had a lot of particularly ugly material that players will likely not want to watch ever again on tape. A brutal sequence of giveaways and lost battles led to the Kings taking a 2-1 lead in the second period, from which they never looked back.
This recent spate of poor puck management and turnovers has played a big role in the Rangers losing three of their past four contests. It’s quite uncharacteristic of a team that entered Sunday’s game against Washington ranked second in the league in keeping the puck out of their net. Even when the Rangers are not playing their best, it is rare that they make these kinds of mistakes on this frequent of a basis.
New York sits fairly comfortably atop the Metropolitan Division and has already clinched a playoff spot, so it’s understandable that they might not be as hungry as other teams — particularly teams that are still battling to get in, like Los Angeles, Boston, and Washington. But what’s concerning isn’t that the Rangers are losing; it’s the way in which they are losing. They are being noticeably outworked, they are managing the puck poorly, and they are not mentally sharp. Sure, Kevin Klein and Martin St. Louis have missed some time with injuries, but the team needs to be better as a whole.
The Rangers will need to be sharp heading into the playoffs, because if they are not playing an urgent brand of hockey by the time the postseason rolls around, it does not matter who their opponent is in the strong Eastern Conference — they will be in trouble. Luckily for them, they still have seven games left to buckle down, tighten up their game, and get healthy before the postseason begins.