What happens when one of the best skating teams in the National Hockey League skates at nowhere near its optimum level and seems stuck in mud all night?
If you are the New York Rangers, then the answer is all wrapped up in Tuesday’s ugly 4-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres at Madison Square Garden.
There were a myriad of reasons why the Blueshirts lost to the struggling cellar-dwelling Sabres in their first twirl of calendar year 2017, but at the top of that list was the fact that this terrific skating team simply did not move its legs right from the first drop of the puck and for most of the night.
That would be all 18 skaters at fault because, except for a handful of shifts here and there, no one distinguished themselves in the red, blue and white Tuesday at MSG, particularly in the opening 20 minutes when the hungrier visitors grabbed a 2-0 lead.
“We were a step behind, late to pucks, not winning battles, and if you do that in this league you aren’t going to get very far,” explained defenseman Dan Girardi.
There were egregious giveaways by New York’s Kevin Klein and Ryan McDonagh that led directly to Sabres’ goals. Henrik Lundqvist wasn’t exactly a rock between the pipes in bailing out his teammates, either. And in the first and third periods, New York seemed allergic to playing in the offensive zone or making Sabres goalie Anders Nilsson break a sweat.
But at the heart of the Blueshirts’ issues Tuesday was that they reacted several steps late, beaten to countless loose pucks, and failed to move their feet quick enough during failed back checks, most notably by Nick Holden and Michael Grabner on two separate Buffalo goals.
Disinterested? Tired? Lethargic?
New York, We Have a Problem
When the Rangers lost twice in the final two games before the Christmas break, surrendering 14 total goals in consecutive defeats to the Pittsburgh Penguins and Minnesota Wild, head coach Alain Vigneault claimed his club was simply worn out, having played a ludicrous 10 games in 17 nights.
There was merit to Vigneault’s assertion. However, it is unfair to overlook the terrible defensive play, goaltending, and decision-making that took place in those two losses.
When half your defense is bad/struggling you need your top guys to carry the slack. When they don't it's backbreaking.
— Joe Fortunato (@JoeFortunatoBSB) January 4, 2017
And there were plenty of red flags in the Rangers’ three-game winning streak that followed the holiday break, too. Largely those defensive breakdowns and often sloppy, careless play was overlooked because the gritty Blueshirts found ways to win despite their deficiencies, rallying past a good Ottawa team after falling behind 2-0, and then beating two terrible teams on the road in Arizona and Colorado.
There is a fair level of concern, though, for Vigneault and his coaches. The Girardi-Brady Skjei defense pairing has not been good at all since being formed after the break. Kevin Klein, elevated to the top pairing with Ryan McDonagh, is in the midst of a terrible season, and is now weighing McDonagh down as a partner. Lundqvist is still struggling to find consistency in his game. Slow starts have slowed the team much more often than anyone would like.
Halfway through the season the Rangers now find themselves in third place in the Metropolitan Division, just two points up on the Washington Capitals, who have three games in hand.
Just a Bump in the Road
Of course, the Rangers remain one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference, despite the issues detailed above. They have won nine of their last 13 games. They have six winning streaks of three games or more already. They have lost two consecutive games in regulation only one time this season. They have the league’s fourth-best power play and just scored six power play goals in a two-game span last week. Their penalty kill is ninth-best in the NHL. And three key injured forwards, Rick Nash, Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich, are all expected to return to the lineup sometime this month.
The Blueshirts are a well-coached, highly skilled team that has plenty of resolve. They pick themselves up and dust themselves off when facing adversity as good as any team in the sport.
So there is certainly a side to their recent uneven play, and more specifically Tuesday’s night’s defeat, that says there is no reason to be running to the nearest bridge, especially with the bye week arriving next week.
The Next Tests
Of course, before the Rangers reach their bye week, they must first contend with a pair of division rivals over the next four days, including the hottest team in the league.
This is where the real test lies for the Rangers.
They lost to a bad Sabres team Tuesday after beating up on a pair of bad teams in the Avalanche and Coyotes last week. The Rangers escaped with a home-ice win over the Senators right after the break after being blown up by two of the best teams in the National Hockey League, the Wild and the Penguins right before the break.
So, now it’s the Flyers down in Philly tonight. Then it’s the Columbus Blue Jackets, they of the incredible 16-game winning streak heading into play this evening, Saturday on the road.
An effort like Tuesday’s against either of these two Metro rivals will lead to disastrous results for the Blueshirts.
It is the next test for the Rangers.
Two wins here and it will be a happy, restful bye week, perhaps with Nash and Zibanejad and/or Buchnevich waiting to return at its conclusion on Jan. 13.
A win and a loss? Not as good a feeling, but certainly acceptable considering the opposition.
Two losses? Not going to be pretty.
Drop the puck and don’t forget to move those legs again.