The headache that is the Rangers

Justin Williams, Henrik Lundqvist

Justin Williams converts one of two goals past a helpless Henrik Lundqvist in a Caps’ 7-3 humiliation of the Rangers back in December. AP Photo by Seth Wenig/Getty Images

Picture the anticipation of something great only to be let down. Maybe it’s a cool ride everyone’s told you about at a amusement park. Or a new movie that’s out. Or a rock concert or Broadway show. Whatever it is, it just doesn’t fulfill expectations. For this True Blue diehard who’s attended games up in the Blueseats for two decades, that’s the ’15-16 Rangers.

I’ll admit that I still had optimism. I believed in the roster despite key subtractions Carl Hagelin to Anaheim (now a Pen) and Martin St. Louis to retirement. I even went against logic taking this team to the Stanley Cup Final. Even crazier, I believed Ducks could fly together picking them to defeat our Blueshirts breaking New York hearts again.

Part of the rationale was that with young talented forwards Kevin Hayes, Chris Kreider and J.T. Miller a year older, I felt they could more than make up for the loss of production from Hagelin and St. Louis. Like many Garden Faithful, I bought into the hype. I believed Hayes and Kreider would take their games to the next level. Instead, they’ve left our fanbase exasperated. I also felt Miller would be a key cog. At least that part has come to fruition with the third-year forward emerging into the team’s most consistent player. With two more goals in a gut wrenching 3-2 defeat to the Devils Tuesday night, he now has seven goals over his last seven games. His 15 markers are third on the club behind Derick Brassard (17) and team leader Mats Zuccarello (18). His 27 points are tied with Keith Yandle for fourth in team scoring. It is also Miller whose four game-winners lead the club. He’s also tied with Brassard in plus/minus (11) for tops among forwards.

Fifty games into the season, the Rangers are clinging to second place in the Metropolitan Division with 59 points. One clear of the third place Islanders and only two ahead of the Penguins and Devils. A tough position to be in considering they still haven’t put together a win streak of over two since reeling off a season high nine in a row between Oct. 25 thru Nov. 15. In fact, they went two months without winning two straight until posting consecutive wins over the Canucks on 1/19 and Hurricanes on 1/22. Prior to that, it came between 11/21-23 against the Panthers and Predators. Since that point, they’re 11-15-3. Considering that they started 16-3-2, the current record of 27-18-5 has them in a close battle with teams who have closed the gap.

The Rangers are no longer a playoff lock. Even as they sit with the East’s third most points trailing conference leader Washington and Atlantic Division leader Florida, two total points separate the top three seeds in each division from the two wildcards. In fact, Tampa Bay and Detroit will break a three-team tie for second with Boston in points. All have 58. The Bruins have the first wildcard due to playing one more game (50) and having less regulation/overtime wins. The Pens are the second wildcard over the Devils by virtue two fewer games played (49). They’re playing their best hockey with star captain Sidney Crosby recording a hat trick in a 6-5 win over the Senators on Tuesday. The addition of Hagelin has dramatically improved them, fitting in with Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel.

Complicating matters is that the Blueshirts’ remaining schedule is mostly against division rivals and teams in the conference they’re battling. So far, they’re 7-5-4 against the Metropolitan. They fell to 0-1-1 against the Devils with two left including a MSG rematch 2/8. The final meeting is 2/23 in Newark. Interestingly, they have yet to face the Pens. The two rivals will play four times over the next month. The first meeting is 2/10 in Pittsburgh. The other three are in March with a road date 3/3 and two home dates on 3/13 and 3/27. They’ve also lost twice to the Islanders in Brooklyn going 0-1-1. The Islanders don’t visit The Garden until 3/6 with a potential big meeting on Apr. 7. The Rangers’ 81st game. They also play the Flyers twice more visiting Philly on 2/6 with the hated rivals invading Broadway on Valentine’s Day. The Flyers hold the upper hand with a 2-0-1 record. The defending champion Blackhawks visit on 2/17.

Then there are the Caps who have dominated. Since beating them 5-2 on Nov. 3, the Rangers have dropped the last three meetings including a tough 4-3 overtime loss on Jan. 9. A game they came back in before allowing a tying goal to Nicklas Backstrom with under six seconds left and a Alex Ovechkin overtime winner. The Caps dominated on special teams in a 5-2 home win on Jan. 17. The Rangers see Washington once more on Mar. 4 in D.C. The two combatants have a great rivalry going. But if they do get in and see the Caps once more, it probably won’t be until the second round again.

There are also challenging parts of the schedule such as a two-game in three day road trip at St. Louis and Dallas between Feb. 25-27. There’s also a three-game Western California trip in four days at Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose spanning Mar. 16-19. They also still have to play the Red Wings twice including on the final day of the season on Apr. 9. The final three games are all at home but against quality opponents in the Lightning, Islanders and Detroit.

There just aren’t many cupcakes left. Even with all Montreal’s struggles, the Rangers have one more trip to Canada on Mar. 26. The Bell Centre has always been a house of horrors. It follows a crucial home date against the Bruins. No one can predict where the Canadiens will be or whether Carey Price will return. Games like at Toronto and two more against Columbus are must haves. Ditto for the Sabres and Jack Eichel, who they see twice more. Plus one more visit at Carolina who are improved but remain beatable.

Break it all down and they need to get hot. Parity is great for the league who encourage wild playoff races. The Rangers have 32 left starting with the low scoring Wild at MSG tomorrow. They already lost once to them. Then, it’s the Flyers, Devils, Pens, Kings, Flyers and Hawks. In other words, either they figure it out or they’ll be booking tee times a lot sooner than most expected.

If they are to turn it around, it starts in net with Henrik Lundqvist. Since a world class start, he’s been average letting in questionable goals that make you wonder if he’s mentally taxed from the subpar play of Dan Girardi, Marc Staal and Dan Boyle. Alain Vigneault has leaned heavily on him. Lundqvist has started 41 of 50 and still has respectable numbers with a 2.43 goals-against-average and .921 save percentage. But he’s facing more shots and dangerous scoring chances which areĀ starting to show. The tying goal he allowed to Joseph Blandisi was unacceptable. Even if the rookie blew past Girardi and fired from the circle quickly, it was a momentum killer. Shortly after, Oscar Lindberg’s penalty led to a complete breakdown allowing David Schlemko to beat Lundqvist for the winner. That wasn’t his fault. Just as the Lee Stempniak power play put back wasn’t. Defensively, the Rangers haven’t helped him as much as in past years.

It’s up to Lundqvist to answer the challenge. He’s the unquestioned emotional leader in the room. Now approaching 34, the affable Swede has shown some frustration. He’s questioned the coaching staff more including calling out Vigneault for not using a timeout to rest players following a icing in a game the Caps tied. He knows the window is closing. His elite play won’t last forever.

The aforementioned defense has been the biggest drop off. With wear and tear showing on Girardi and Staal, they are no longer the same lock down defenders. However, Vigneault and assistant coach Ulf Samuelsson continue to have blind faith sending them out against top competition. After splitting apart Ryan McDonagh from Girardi while giving the more dependable Kevin Klein a chance, Vigneault went back to his original top pair. Even though they performed better recently, goals like the one Blandisi scored off the rush are more common due to Girardi’s lack of foot speed. The same can be echoed of Staal, whose game has come and gone. Having him paired with Dan Boyle is a nightmare defensively. They’ll continue to be together with Klein out which also means Girardi stays with McDonagh. Dylan McIlrath at least gets back in and teams with Keith Yandle with who he’s comfortable with.

At what point does Vigneault finally give Yandle more time on the top power play unit? He continues to lean on McDonagh, who doubles as the top shutdown defenseman drawing tough assignments. Yandle is the Rangers’ best offensive defenseman leading them in assists (24) with 27 points which are three better than McDonagh. Yet he’s mostly on the second unit despite producing one less power play point (1-7-8) than McDonagh (2-7-9). At times, Yandle drives me crazy with his pass first, rarely shoot mentality. But when it works, it’s a thing of beauty like the set up for Miller’s second last night. A point of contention on social media is that the organization didn’t give up Anthony Duclair and a conditional first for Vigneault to under utilize Yandle, who can walk this summer. There are too many instances where he’s not seeing the ice enough while Girardi and Staal get more responsibility.

Then there’s the offense. Since a hot start, Zuccarello has been very inconsistent. There are some nights where you can’t even find him. Maybe the drop in play has to do with what he came back from. It’s easy to forget that he took a McDonagh shot to the head and suffered a brain contusion and partial skull fracture that forced him to see a speech therapist. Early in the season, he was brilliant. It was like he never had a career threatening injury. But over the past two months, he has lost that edge. Instead, he is mostly on the perimeter and never backchecks getting toasted by Blandisi in the neutral zone. His production has dropped off. He’s now second in scoring with 35 points (18-17-35) trailing Brassard by two.

Speaking of Brassard, he’s been streaky. At times, you don’t notice him except for laziness defensively. However, he’s the most talented center the team possesses. Capable of career nights like the five-point explosion he had in a home win over Buffalo. Or most notably, the hat trick and five points he had in Game 6 against the Lightning of the Eastern Conference Final. He can be that good. Brassard’s goal production is up with 17. He’s never scored 20 before with the 19 he got along with a career high 41 assists and 60 points his best season in ’14-15. He’s also improved dramatically on faceoffs winning 52.0 percent. No matter who he plays with, the Rangers need him to be more consistent. He has it in him.

While we’re on the case of consistency, look no further than Derek Stepan. Granted. The more responsible two-way pivot who plays in every situation including penalty kill hasn’t been 100 percent missing 10 games due to a broken rib. However, more is expected than nine goals and 21 points in 40 games with a disappointing plus-five rating. The lazy penalty he took in the offensive zone at the end of the first period Tuesday led directly to Stempniak’s power play goal. It’s the kind you don’t expect from a team leader. Afterwards, Stepan emphasized how the Devils competed several times. That’s been part of the issue with this team. He’s made strides on faceoffs closing in on 50.0 percent for the first time in his career. Now, it’s about production for a player who’s getting paid $6.5 million-per-season.

We’ve already documented the struggles of Hayes and Kreider. Both have underachieved in key restricted years that could cost them dollars with the cap possibly not going up due to the drop in the Canadian dollar. With Miller outperforming them, he could be the beneficiary. Simply put, Hayes gets a F for his season. Seven goals and 15 assists along with costly giveaways and blown coverage along with a dismal faceoff percentage make him the biggest disappointment. A puck possession beast, he’s capable of much better.

The same can be echoed of the physically gifted Kreider who has just nine goals and 14 assists in 47 games. After showing signs with points in four straight including three markers, he’s without a point and minus-three since missing a game with neck spasms. He shows flashes nightly using his game breaking speed to create dangerous chances like the one he got on Cory Schneider, who stoned him on a break in. However, Kreider needs to bury some of the opportunities. He’s been unlucky. It’s time for that to change.

Hayes’ inconsistency has really hurt the third line. Last year, he had an advantage playing with speed demon Hagelin, who doubled as a two-way threat. This year, he’s bounced around due to setbacks with the latest one to Rick Nash (bone bruise) forcing Vigneault to mix and match. While Miller has found a spot on the top line with Brassard and for now the more hard working Jesper Fast, Hayes is with Lindberg and Viktor Stalberg. Hayes makes that line go with his skating and puck possession. Stalberg has been terrific lately creating on the forecheck and even contributing seven goals.

Then there’s the current state of the fourth line. It’s not pretty with Daniel Paille and Tanner Glass struggling since being put together with Dominic Moore. There’s not enough speed nor skill for any type of consistency. Glass was good when he returned but has leveled off. Moore has been spotty even on the penalty kill. If things were normal, Stalberg would be on the fourth line with Fast. But they aren’t. So, it leaves them a little short on depth.

With Nash, who’s been a terrible disappointment with only 12 goals in 45 contests still out, the organization recalled Jayson Megna. That they felt he should be the guy again speaks volumes. After giving up on Emerson Etem for Nicklas Jensen, he doesn’t even get a look. Instead, it’s Megna who is a righty shot that had initial success with a great Broadway debut with a goal and helper in a win. But he went pointless the last four and feel down the depth chart.

What about giving a kid like Ryan Bourque a shot on the fourth line and penalty kill? He can kill penalties. His 24 points for the Wolf Pack are tied for second with Marek Hrivik. Another forgotten prospect. If Megna really is the only player they’re comfortable with, what does that say for the organization? Of course, it’s understandable why first-year pros Adam Tambellini and Ryan Graves would stay down. They’re not ready. But they already gave Brady Skjei a cameo. He’ll be a big part of the blue line in the future.

Then you add Klein’s re-injury to his thumb which could impact what the Rangers do at the Feb. 29 deadline. Right now, they’re carrying six defensemen. Not even Raphael Diaz is coming up. Instead, it’s Megna with Vigneault wanting to make a lineup change. I wonder who for. Paille or Glass. If it’s Lindberg for his penalty, there truly is no hope.

So, what does it all mean? That more and more fans are getting fed up with the coach and organization. There seems to be a double standard. Vets are treated differently than kids. I get that the core is beloved. Vigneault has made his decision. He’ll live and die with the mistakes of Girardi, Staal and Boyle. Particularly Girardi and Staal, who are blood and guts leaders who helped lead the team to its only Stanley Cup appearance since 1994. They played hurt last May and still somehow got within a period of a second straight Cup Final. If it works, then there’s hope. If not, then you can pretty much guarantee that Vigneault’s stubborn ways will cost him his job by next year.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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