There was a game last night for the Rangers in Winnipeg. Funny thing is I don’t think they realized it. On a night where I skipped watching it for a late shift and then a night out with my coworkers, they took the same approach. They were beaten badly by the Jets 5-2 making it a clean sweep on consecutive nights from Minnesota and Winnipeg.
What’s most alarming is the lackadaisical play of the top line. At times, they dazzle offensively. With Mats Zuccarello and Derick Brassard combining with Rick Nash to create some nice goals. The problem for the cohesive trio is consistency. By that, I mean the lack of defensive awareness. In last weekend’s awfulness at Edmonton and Calgary, they were responsible for a few goals against. It continued to be a theme in the latest road debacles.
You can’t be successful when your best players aren’t your best players. Lately, that’s been the case during a brutal stretch that’s seen the Rangers lose nine of their last 12. They’re just not sharp. That includes Henrik Lundqvist who was unprepared to go in and relieve injured backup Antti Raanta Thursday night giving up two stinkers. While it’s true his team has hung him out to dry, Lundqvist has not bailed them out. Even if he is the least of the Rangers’ issues, if he’s bad then they have no chance.
The same goes for captain Ryan McDonagh whose performances are so up and down it makes you wonder if he’ll ever get back to the elite level he displayed in 2014. Is it the past injuries or all the games catching up? At times, he still shows flashes. But is a lot easier to beat. Especially along the wall. Even without ailing partner Dan Girardi, McDonagh isn’t the same player. Of course, his Corsi possession numbers have gone up but he’s making too many mistakes.
Mistakes have been common for this team. In the first two months, they got away with it due to Lundqvist and Raanta covering them up. A 16-3-1 start was the best in franchise history. During that stretch, the goalies made the big saves and our team took advantage of opponents’ mistakes finding ways to win. In December, that’s changed. They have a tendency to give up goals after they score. There’s way too many gaps and blown assignments. Their bad habits are finally being exposed.
Even in a game Derek Stepan returned, it didn’t change. Stepan can help an offense that’s been too reliant on the top line. Due in large part to the disappointing play of Kevin Hayes and Chris Kreider, coach Alain Vigneault has been unable to find a second line. Kreider went back to play with Stepan Friday.
In a startling move, Vigneault healthy scratched rookie Oscar Lindberg. Granted. His play has come down. He’s been taking a lot of undisciplined penalties. He’s far from alone. It just boggles the mind that Vigneault would choose to make an example out of one of his few secondary scorers with skill while keeping Viktor Stalberg in the lineup. Stalberg has had his moments but makes far too many mistakes in the neutral zone. He is what he is. A spare part that shouldn’t play daily. Tanner Glass has been better since his recall meshing with Dominic Moore on the fourth line. The decision should be easy. Mix and match with Stalberg and Glass.
Vigneault rewarded Emerson Etem by moving him up. He should stay in the top nine and be given a real chance. There’s more skill from the 23-year old than reliable defensive penalty killing forward Jesper Fast. Fast is a better fit for the fourth line.
The player who is moved around the most is J.T. Miller. He scored his sixth in the loss last night. He can play both the wing and center. But Miller is better suited for the wing where he can complement Stepan and Kreider on the second line. Unless Vigneault wants to find out what Etem can do in a more defined role.
The third-year Rangers coach faces a tough decision soon with Girardi. Kevin Klein will be ready soon. When he is and Girardi is too, who comes out of the lineup? It can’t be Dylan McIlrath. The 2010 first round pick continues to establish himself while teaming with Keith Yandle on the team’s most consistent pair. It would be ridiculous for the 23-year old to sit for Girardi. But one is paid top dollar and has a no-movement clause.
Complicating matters is Dan Boyle has finally found his scoring touch. He scored a power play goal Friday and has been much more involved over this bad stretch. With Boyle doing positive things on the power play and more effective on the forecheck, he’s not coming out of the lineup.
There’s no question the defense is better with Klein. It’s no coincidence that the structure has fallen apart without him. When he returns, Klein should pair with McDonagh. That leaves Marc Staal to pair with Boyle. Staal is up and down too. He was minus-three in the Winnipeg loss. Maybe Vigneault should do the unthinkable and rotate Staal and Girardi. They both aren’t the same players. Each have their flaws. Neither is a great skater and can be exposed by speed. They are prone to mistakes in their end with the puck making it harder to get it out. Both have wear and tear. There’s no reason for either to play every night. Resting each could be what’s best for the long-term.
With the red hot Caps visiting MSG tomorrow, either things will get straightened out or it could get a lot worse. As much as they’ve had their number, the one team that can expose the Rangers are the Caps. A strong possession team with quality netminding from Vezina contender Braden Holtby. Key acquisitions T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams have fit in well. John Carlson is having a strong season. Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom are all lethal.
Normally, when they face a good opponent the Rangers rise up to the challenge. These aren’t normal circumstances. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.