The New York Rangers were headed for the second period of Game 5 all tied at two, and there seemed to be some hope that they might be able to turn the 3-1 first-round deficit against the Pittsburgh Penguins around. However when the Rangers started skating again, reality sunk in that this team was overmatched as they allowed four goals in the frame as a result of the terrible execution and poor goaltending. The series never felt close, and that’s because the Rangers simply didn’t have their game.
The Rangers have skill throughout their lineup, but for whatever reason, this team struggled to do everything. They couldn’t cover the opponent in front of the net, they couldn’t get the puck deep, and they couldn’t even string together more than one pass at a time. Give the Penguins a ton of credit for playing a fast and intense game, but also blame the Rangers for not being able to make routine plays throughout the match.
Some of the guys that stuck out to me with their inability to manage the puck were Derick Brassard, Mats Zuccarello and J.T. Miller. I’m not putting the blame solely on mentioned players because everyone in the lineup was off their game, it was just surprising to see these guys who are terrific passers and puck handlers struggle to do anything with precision.
An excellent example of this was in Game 5 on Matt Cullen’s goal. Brassard is coming back into the defensive zone to retrieve the puck with pressure on him, but rather than blast the puck out of the zone, he tries to stick handle and loses it which makes way for a glorious opportunity.
A more pivotal play in the series was when Keith Yandle and Dan Boyle collided in the third period of Game 3 on what would become a game-winning goal for Cullen. Boyle gets caught a bit over-stretched, and Yandle comes flying over to make a play that he misses which results in a Grade-A scoring chance for Cullen, that he buries.
From this point until Game 5, the Rangers made an abundance of bad plays and it’s surprising to see from a team that’s been through so many tough games in past years. But another huge issue for the club was that they couldn’t get that shot of life from Henrik Lundqvist when they had breakdowns.
This was the first playoff series that I can say that Lundqvist was struggling. Throughout his career, the Swedish netminder has been brilliant and capable of making several huge saves while the Rangers struggled, but in this postseason, aside from Game 2, every good or even decent chance seemed to be a goal. It’s not surprising that Antti Raanta got into the last two games of the series.
Can’t believe that Henrik Lundqvist didn’t finish 3 of the 5 games vs #penguins
— Renaud Lavoie (@renlavoietva) April 23, 2016
Perhaps the eye injury sustained in Game 1 had an effect on him mentally, but I doubt it because if it was some hindrance, then I think Raanta is starting. It became apparent to me that Lundqvist wasn’t right when Conor Sheary burned him short side on a partial breakaway. This play began with an ill-advised pass by Kevin Klein, but this is a save an elite goalie makes.
For those speculating Lundqvist’s future, it is very unlikely that we see him moved. He still has a tremendous body of work and had a good regular season, that being said I would expect the Rangers to try to knock down his workload next year.
This spilt over from the regular season; the team stunk on the penalty kill all year, and the power play was inconsistent. The only change for the postseason was that the power play went from being decent at times to being downright dreadful. The Rangers finished the playoffs with two power-play goals in 19 attempts, and one of those came on a 5-3 advantage. New York just never seemed to be able to get into the zone clean and when they did, they struggled to get shots through the Pittsburgh defense.
On the penalty kill, no team in the playoffs had a lower percentage than the Rangers (61.9 percent). The same issues haunted them as the team struggled to protect the front of the net, and they never could prevent the point shot. Combine these elements with a struggling goalie and it’s easy to see why the Rangers were overmatched while short-handed.
The Verdict on Vigneault
Social media has been buzzing since the conclusion of the first-round series, and much of the talk in New York’s realm has been about Rangers’ head coach Alain Vigneault. I understand the frustration of fans about a talented team with big expectations melting down, but to me, Vigneault deserves the least blame of all for this team’s struggles.
An NHL level coach isn’t teaching players how to play hockey; their job is to provide a strategy that works, and the proof of his formula being sound is the team’s success the past two seasons, where the team reached the Stanley Cup and Eastern Conference Final in respective years. This year’s team could have missed the playoffs with the injuries and issues they had, but he managed to get them to a 101-point season.
The mistakes the Rangers were making were mental; they were dumping and not chasing, giving the puck away with little or no pressure, and abandoning the front of the net on defense. I understand that it’s the coach’s job to get the team on the same page, but he is not teaching Dan Girardi how to intercept a pass or telling Rick Nash how to score a goal. The truth is if the Rangers executed on some plays, this would have been a much different series.
This series isn’t on one player, the whole team was just off. It looked to me like everyone was trying to make that big play every shift and sometimes that’s a poor approach because it erodes the simple game. I think with an infusion of some fresh blood, this team will be okay. I could see the Rangers getting younger, tweaking their philosophy and returning next season as a complete unit.