Tonight, the Rangers were shutout by the Canadiens 1-0 in a hotly contested game at MSG. It was their second straight loss out of the All-Star break. In six periods, they’ve scored one goal. That it came against two Stanley Cup contenders isn’t a surprise. The Islanders and Canadiens are two of the East’s best. Along with the Lightning and Bruins, they pose the biggest threats to the Rangers.
Offense hasn’t been an issue. However, it could become one due to the lack of secondary scoring. At this point of the season, coach Alain Vigneault hasn’t figured out what his third and fourth lines should be. The juggling of Kevin Hayes, Jesper Fast and J.T. Miller continues. With only Carl Hagelin an established third liner while faceoff ace Dominic Moore is better suited for the fourth line, there in lies the problem. Lee Stempniak and Tanner Glass are role guys who shouldn’t play every night.
What it all means is that the Garden Faithful can’t be too confident about this team’s depth. Gone are Brad Richards, Brian Boyle, Benoit Pouliot, Derek Dorsett and Dan Carcillo. All were key pieces Vigneault could rely on last Spring. Offensively, they were much deeper including at center with Richards supplying offense and Boyle providing a smart defensive forward who could take draws. Pouliot was a perfect fit on the third line with Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello. While Brassard has upped his level, Zuccarello has struggled in a top six role. He hasn’t provided enough offense and is costing himself in a contract year.
Most of the scoring has been provided by the top two lines with top sniper Rick Nash and true number one center Derek Stepan leading the way. Martin St. Louis has been a good mentor for Chris Kreider. Kreider is still learning the ropes. In tonight’s match, he challenged P.K. Subban, who ducked him and laughed in his face. Kreider is still developing. As for St. Louis, the production is fine but he’s been streaky. The former Hart winner was snake bit hitting a post and getting robbed by Carey Price in the third with the game still tied. He’s without a goal in seven straight.
As it is, the Blueshirts don’t have many finishers. Even with Nash doing his part, it is scoring by committee. So when St. Louis slumps and Zuccarello is ice cold, that puts too much pressure on Nash. There is still a learning curve for Hayes and Fast, who Vigneault favors over Miller. The former 2011 first round pick shows flashes but still is mistake prone which is why he doesn’t play every game. At some point, Vigneault must decide what makes better sense. Letting Miller learn from his mistakes or playing Stempniak and Glass over him while risking losing the second-year forward.
In the one-goal defeat, Glass provided toughness battling Brandon Prust to a draw. Not surprisingly, the game had edge. It was expected with the Habs wanting to make a point in their final visit to The Garden in the regular season. Max Pacioretty scored the lone goal catching Henrik Lundqvist napping. Price delivered the message by stopping all 24 shots for a shutout. The Habs’ number one goalie who was injured during last year’s Eastern Conference Final is in line for his first Vezina. That could depend on if Pekka Rinne returns for Nashville.
For the Rangers, it’s back to work for the Hurricanes who visit Saturday. With the Panthers and Bruins also on the horizon, it’s up to them to turn the page. They blew opportunities to gain ground in the divisional race. With 58 points in 46 games, they trail third place Washington by one and are four behind second place Pittsburgh. Even with their loss to Boston, the Islanders remain seven up and already have won the season series. What the Rangers want to avoid is a slump which could allow teams behind them to creep up. They’re still six clear of Florida and the suddenly resurgent Flyers trail by nine with four more games played.
In the mean time, they have to figure it out. Vigneault will continue to toss darts and see if he can miraculously fix the depth issue. With the trade deadline March 2, that gives general manager Glen Sather a month to figure out how to improve his team. A lack of a true third line center who can win faceoffs is a glaring hole. Who are the candidates? Antoine Vermette could be a target as a rental. On a bad Coyotes team, he has 31 points and is over 55 percent on draws. Martin Hanzal has the size and skill they lack but is locked up through ’16-17 on a great contract with an average cap hit of $3.1 million. I don’t see them moving him.
There are other areas Sather might want to address. Upgrading on the blueline is a possibility. Neither John Moore nor Matt Hunwick are regulars with each better suited as extras. Size has also come into play against the Islanders and Bruins. The Rangers aren’t big or overly physical. That along with the being thin at center and depth are legit concerns. We won’t get a definitive answer for a while.