In case you were living in a cave, the Rangers are officially on life support. Thanks to another frustrating performance, they’re now in the same predicament they were in this round last year. After falling to the Tort-Trotz Caps 2-1 on a pair of goals from 20-year old Andre Burakovsky (you can’t make it up), they face an uphill battle starting Friday.
No one likes funerals. Hopefully, the Rangers remember to bring some good twigs that include goals. More than one would be nice. At the moment, they’re running out of answers against a Caps team who has surrounded Braden Holtby by blocking every shot possible. On a night he made 28 saves, Washington blocked 25 shots. The Rangers out-attempted the Caps 66-49. The trouble is 37 never made it to Holtby who continues to outplay Henrik Lundqvist in a bizarre low-scoring series.
Facing a disciplined opponent that has continued to keep most of their chances to the outside, the Rangers have managed only five goals on 126 shots. They haven’t been able to get to Holtby who remains a brick wall. Sadly, Lundqvist has permitted seven goals on 113 shots. That hasn’t been good enough. It’s remarkable that he can perform well but hasn’t gotten enough support.
Every game the Rangers have played has been decided by one goal. The difference in this series is they’ve been on the wrong side three out of four times. Even worse, they’ve lost those in bad fashion. Whether it be with Joel Ward’s Game 1 stunner or Jay Beagle’s fluke goal from behind the net or Burakovsky coming out of nowhere to toast invisible captain Ryan McDonagh 24 seconds into the third, they’ve all hurt big time.
Why are they losing this series? Well, for starters Alain Vigneault is getting outcoached by Barry “Tort” Trotz. Yeah. I’m going to refer to him as that given how his team playing. They’re executing Trotz’ defensive strategy perfectly. Vigneault has had no answer. Outside of one lineup tweak moving Dominic Moore up to the Kevin Hayes line with Carl Hagelin while as predicted sliding J.T. Miller to the fourth line with Tanner Glass and James Sheppard, Vigneault has shown too much reluctance to make changes during losses.
The biggest question I have for the coach is how does he not double shift Rick Nash down the stretch while shortening the bench. What the heck was the fourth line doing out with five-plus minutes left? The sad aspect is Miller actually set up Glass for a quality chance with Holtby sliding across to pad away his low shot. At some point, you have to roll the dice. Vigneault hasn’t been willing to ride his horses. Even with Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider having bad nights, he never once tried Nash with them for a shift.
It is just mind boggling how Vigneault hasn’t been able to push the right buttons. That includes a power play so abominable, you wish they could decline it. They only had one and it came early with Karl Alzner off for tripping. Paging the coach. Why isn’t Nash on the top unit? How does he explain leaving his best scorer on the bench for the entire first half? Even if he’s not finishing, he’s a threat. More than you can say for Martin St. Louis, who despite playing another good game setting up their only goal is just shot. The effort is there but he is one dimensional. Sad to see from a great player who looks every bit his age of 39.
Vigneault finally threw the towel in on Keith Yandle quarterbacking the power play. That’s how hesitant he’s been. If it’s cause he’s still banged up, so be it. Yandle has been a colossal bust. He had a couple of good moments against the Pens but it’s been an awful second round. Even the Rangers’ best McDonagh has been pitiful. He was beat for Ward’s game-winner and was victimized by Burakovsky after just a brutal turnover to start the third when you knew one goal would be enough for the Caps to win.
The best chance they got was Hagelin awarded a penalty shot with 11:59 left in regulation after being hooked from behind by Mike Green. Unfortunately, his deke and backhand was snuffed out by Holtby, who snatched it with his glove preserving the lead to thunderous cheers from Verizon Center who chanted his name. He deserved it.
You can toss out the puck possession because like a broken record, it meant nothing. Something I’ve harped on. To all the fan bloggers who live and die with Corsi. It’s meaningless unless they score. The Rangers haven’t gotten to Holtby. Sure. They earned some rare second chances with Jesper Fast hustling to get off a quality shot that the Caps netminder handled. There were a few others but again, it wasn’t enough.
If you throw aside the extra possession along with a strong first period, the Rangers got largely outplayed in the second. That was despite Nash making a great defensive play that led to St. Louis feeding an open Derick Brassard for a sweet finish top shelf with Alex Ovechkin lolly gagging. They even had golden opportunities to go up two with Nash coming close to beating Holtby followed by a bizarre sequence where the Hayes unit had Holtby down but never beat him. That about sums it up.
When you fail to take advantage of such chances, it usually comes back to bite you. As soon as the Caps turned it up, the Rangers were on the defensive. It’s Washington’s relentless forecheck that’s forced Lundqvist to make tougher saves than Holtby. That’s because they get inside and bring traffic finding rebounds. On one big shift, Ovechkin got two heavy shots on Lundqvist which he thwarted. One left a juicy rebound that was cleared by St. Louis.
Once again, it was the Caps third line which wreaked havoc. Game 3 hero Beagle along with hefty truck Troy Brouwer did the heavy lifting on a dominant shift. Dan Girardi tried to make the right play going up the wall to Kreider but he got outmuscled by Burakovsky who in one motion came off the wall and had enough room to beat Lundqvist unscreened to tie it. On the play, Stepan was taken down causing the Rangers bench to flip. But that’s besides the point. Kreider shouldn’t have gotten muscled off the puck and Lundqvist should’ve had it. Even on a night where he was ultra sharp, he gave up a crusher. This isn’t on him if they fail to come back. It’s about the team around him and a punchless offense under a coach who this isn’t supposed to happen under. Ironically, it happened to the Canucks when they won the President’s Trophy getting ousted by the bigger Kings.
Vigneault has his defensemen pinching at every turn. But the Caps have done a great job neutralizing McDonagh. He hasn’t much space when activated. Yandle’s struggles are well documented. As much as fans have killed him, Dan Boyle is the only defenseman who has been able to carry the puck up ice and gain the zone. For all his shortcomings, he has skating ability. it would be nice if he could actually keep pucks in at the point and get shots through. When Glen Sather signed him over Anton Stralman, I hated it.
Will the Rangers quit? They basically did with 34 seconds left. In just a mystifying sequence after tagging up on a delayed offside, they dumped the puck in and not one Blueshirt was close to any Cap allowing them an easy clear. That led to one final rush and then a pile up on the side boards that ran off the final eight seconds.
You have to wonder where they’re heads are at. When you have Brassard admitting that “they seem to have an answer for everything,” referring to the Caps, it is a ringing indictment.
Are they done? It sure seems like it. Is this the same group that rallied from a 3-1 deficit last year? Hardly. Gone are Stralman, Brian Boyle, Benoit Pouliot. Mats Zuccarello isn’t playing due to a concussion. They even miss Derek Dorsett and Dan Carcillo, who contributed a lot more than the current fourth line Vigneault constructed.
The Rangers are not as tough to play against. Sure. They can skate and when they control possession, they’re effective. However, they’re softer defensively and easier to forecheck. A defenseman like Stralman who was so good at coming out with pucks along the boards and either skating it out or making the right pass is sorely missed. A tenacious checker like Boyle, who always upped his game in the postseason now stars in a similar role for Tampa, who went up 3-0 on Montreal thanks to Conn Smythe candidate Tyler Johnson. Pouliot was a strong forechecker who teamed with Brassard and Zuccarello to form their most consistent line.
It’s not fair to judge kids like Hayes, Miller and Fast so early in their careers. They are still learning. I’ve liked a lot of what I’ve seen from Hayes and Fast. Their battle level has been excellent. Some of the Rangers’ best opportunities have been created by each. Miller is still a work in progress. He really doesn’t belong on the fourth line. Maybe it’s time to reunite him with Stepan and Kreider. Fast can shift back to Hayes and Hagelin.
As for Nash, it’s now nine games and he’s still stuck on one goal. The effort is unquestioned. He is around the puck more and is attempting more shots. His attention to detail is superb. He did help set up Brassard’s goal. You have to look at Stepan and be disappointed. He hasn’t been consistent. Neither has Kreider despite his physical presence. At this point, both should be performing better and need to for them to have any chance at a comeback.
So, what can the coach do better? Coach. Don’t be afraid to try different combos. He has nothing to lose. At this critical juncture, Vigneault needs to do whatever it takes to get his team to Game 6. That goes double for his struggling players.