Even when they don’t play near their best, the Rangers continue to win hockey games. Take last night’s too close for comfort 3-2 shootout win over the Hurricanes in Raleigh. They played one good period scoring both goals in the second with kids J.T. Miller and Jesper Fast tallying. The Canes tied it in the third on a Ryan Murphy power play goal outshooting the Rangers 17-6.
Without Cam Talbot, they don’t win. Coming off a rare loss in regulation, Talbot was strong making 28 saves including 16 in a lopsided third that saw the Canes dominate puck possession. After giving up a bad goal to Elias Lindholm, he was terrific once again. The league’s best backup has been carrying his team lately. He’s allowed two goals or less in eight straight starts entering tonight’s stern test against the Ducks.
When they were winning early on after Talbot took over for injured starter Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers were outscoring opponents. It was Talbot who was struggling giving up tough goals and fighting the puck. However, it’s been a role reversal with the second-year netminder keeping his team in games and winning. His clutch play has allowed them to contend for a division title along with the President’s Trophy. Entering tonight’s match that doesn’t start until 7:30 PM, they have 97 points with 13 games left. They trail Anaheim and Montreal by two for the league lead with three games in hand.
Offensively, the Rangers have cooled off considerably. Since scoring four in a March 2 4-1 home win over Nashville, they’ve been limited to 13 goals over the past eight. They’ve only scored three once in a 3-1 win over Washington and have been held to two goals or fewer in seven of eight. As the games have tightened, scoring has dried up.
So, what’s happened? For starters, leading scorer Rick Nash hasn’t been the same since missing a Feb. 24 game against Calgary with “neck spasms.” The effort is unquestioned. The finish isn’t there. Once the league leader in goals, he has only two in the last 11 since returning. Only one was on a goalie with the other an empty netter. He’s getting chances but just not converting. Since scoring his team best 39th along with a helper in a 2-1 win over the Islanders, the Big Easy is without a point in five with 18 shots. He’s still very active on the forecheck and continuing to fire away. Eventually, one will go in.
While getting Nash untracked is huge, the same can be echoed for Derek Stepan. After being so productive with 43 points in his first 44 games, the team’s best center is in a brutal 12-game stretch without a point. Hard to believe because he’s still noticeable during shifts making smart defensive plays while being a shorthanded threat with Nash on the penalty kill. With Stepan, the only area you worry about is faceoffs. Last night, he lost 14 of 20 mostly against Jordan Staal, who was matched against him. Like Nash, he also has come close lately registering six shots in a 1-0 shutout loss to Chicago and almost scoring on a stuff try Saturday.
When Alain Vigneault changed up the lines with Martin St. Louis out, he was hoping reuniting Nash with Stepan and Chris Kreider would spark them. They were good for most shifts yesterday but didn’t find twine. At times, Kreider can dominate during shifts with his rare combo of size, speed and skill. Without a goal in eight and with two assists, he must stay active. They did have him as a net presence against Carolina goalie Anton Khudobin on a power play with Keith Yandle getting a good shot on net. Kreider also made a good play on the forecheck to set up Stepan for his chance behind the net. Without a doubt, the reunited trio need a goal. They’re due. Maybe they snap out of it later.
Mats Zuccarello always brings a strong work ethic. The pint sized Norwegian has a huge heart and never takes a shift off. He hasn’t been finishing. Without a goal since Feb. 20 versus Buffalo, he has seven assists over the last 11 contests. So, he’s still contributing. But since Vigneault broke up the top line of Nash, Derick Brassard and Zuccarello, he’s gone cold. His assist on Miller’s goal was his first point in five. It came off a Brassard faceoff win. Brassard also recorded his first point in five with a helper. The team leader in assists with 39 and a career high 53 points, he has five points over the last 10. However, he also has only one goal since Feb. 4. An overtime winner that beat the Hawks in Chicago.
Obviously, the production is good for a player Glen Sather rewarded $25 million over five years for. He’s on track for his first 60-point season. It’s not like Brassard is incapable of scoring. He is very unselfish preferring to pass instead of shoot. On the power play which continues to puzzle now 0 for its last 16, it wouldn’t be a bad idea if Brassard looked to shoot. The power play has been woefully bad only connecting once since Yandle came over. It was Dan Girardi of all people back on Mar. 4.
Understandably, when the man-advantage is a disadvantage it allows opponents to be more aggressive disrespecting it. A strategy Carolina employed with success. They went for it shorthanded. The Rangers have been timid and also outworked up a man. At some point, that must change. As evidenced during last year’s Stanley Cup Final, the lack of a power play doomed them. They blew several chances against LA including a pair in sudden death of Game 5 that I’ve tried to erase from my memory.
With the race heating up, the Rangers’ best players need to be their best. Even without St. Louis, there’s enough talent offensively. Lately, it’s been the play of rookie Kevin Hayes who neatly set up Fast’s fourth. The fourth line led by Dominic Moore has also played well including Tanner Glass, who’s been in position to score. They were effective with James Sheppard Saturday.
Having strong support lines is important for the playoffs. Vigneault continues to roll four lines showing confidence. Though I’d prefer not to see the fourth line out in the final minute of a tie game. But that also was indicative of how ineffective the top two lines were.
For as much attention as has been on the key forwards lately, not enough has been said about Ryan McDonagh. Sure. His defense has finally come back to the level he excels at neutralizing opposing scorers. Even with Vigneault throwing a wrinkle shifting McDonagh to the right and bumping up Matt Hunwick, the 27th team captain is looking more confident. His offense has all but disappeared with just two points (both assists) over the last 15. In an emotional 6-5 come from behind win on Feb. 16 over the Islanders, McDonagh provided the spark tallying twice. But in a season that saw him miss time with a separated shoulder, he’s only done it in spurts. He is the leader. They’ll need better production in the second season.
With Vigneault opting to team Yandle with Dan Boyle while reuniting Marc Staal and Dan Girardi, he’s experimenting without Kevin Klein. Klein, who broke his left arm won’t return until the playoffs. Hopefully, he’ll be ready for the first round. Yandle and Boyle were very shaky against Carolina. Yandle had some scary turnovers. It’s definitely a risky tandem. But Vigneault can always change it up if needed.
As they enter the home stretch, the Rangers want to raise their level. Especially with tougher competition this week. You have the Ducks tonight and the desperate Kings who need every point to even qualify for the tournament. They trail Calgary by two and have three less regulation overtime wins (ROW). The Rangers also see a red hot Ottawa team only a point behind Boston for the last wildcard. Then visit Boston. It’s interesting how they can impact both conference races with stops at Winnipeg and Minnesota.
What’s most imperative is that they get back to playing Ranger hockey. We saw what they’re capable of in the second period. It has to be there more often. Especially with Lundqvist due back soon.