Playing for the second straight day, the Rangers dropped a 5-3 decision to the Pens at MSG. If there one word to sum up a weekend in which they got one point against Detroit and Pittsburgh, it would be disappointing. They didn’t do quite enough to win. So, the end results were predictable.
A day after getting dominated for long stretches against the puck possession Red Wings, the Rangers were underwhelming in losing to the Pens a second straight time. They still have one more game against them this month. It’s in two weeks when Pittsburgh visits the Garden again for the final regular season match up on March 27. If it’s anything like the last two, I think I’ll just skip it.
Most perplexing about today’s home defeat was the questionable decision making of coach Alain Vigneault. With his team playing the second of a back-to-back, he decided to shorten his bench by sitting the fourth line. Kevin Hayes (5:36), Dominic Moore (5:47) and Oscar Lindberg (7:02) hardly played. Somehow, a more playable fourth line didn’t receive one shift in the third period. It didn’t make a whole lot of sense. In a tweet, I noted how MSG Radio’s Dave Maloney took him to task. The consensus is overwhelming.
Would Vigneault have come to the same conclusion had Tanner Glass been in the lineup? He sat due to an upper body injury. No disrespect to Glass, who has given a good account of himself in his second season on Broadway. The three goals and two assists with a minus-one and 42 penalty minutes in 44 games is a solid output for the physical forward who leads the club with 172 hits. However, he’s not as good a skater as Hayes or Lindberg. Glass’ effort is unquestioned. Vigneault even trusts him to kill penalties. An area he’s been hesitant to use Lindberg, who has seen less and less ice-time. Is there any doubt he’ll be the odd man out when Glass returns?
It’s interesting to note that when Glass is on the fourth line, they usually get shifts in the third period. On a day where he had a chance to see what four skating lines could look like, Vigneault chose to shorten up. Double shifting players can be effective when trailing. But with a tired team, it probably made better sense to roll four lines. It’s not like Hayes can’t be a factor at even strength. He’s a superb skater with strong possession skills who is good at finding teammates. Lindberg has size and has scored 12 goals and added 14 helpers in his rookie year. He is willing to go to the net. Moore has always been a clutch performer. If you give him skilled linemates, he can come through offensively.
So, what gives? It’s a better question for a coach who usually sidesteps such issues during the post game. He didn’t avoid it. But just chose to go with a top nine that now includes Eric Staal and Rick Nash, who played his second consecutive game. He led the team with six shots. If he can find chemistry with Staal, that could make the Rangers dangerous this postseason. Especially with Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider going.
The question is with Vigneault behind the bench, will he make the most out of his improved forward depth? On the contrary, the blueline remains a issue. In his second game back, Marc Staal had the misfortune of having Matt Cullen’s game-winner go off his skate. Partner Dan Boyle was on for four goals against including Sidney Crosby’s odd empty netter that he couldn’t stop. With inconsistency from vets including Dan Girardi, the defense appears to be much weaker than in past years.
The Rangers have always been successful from the goal out. Henrik Lundqvist and backup Antti Raanta have covered up for a lot of mistakes. However, there have been inopportune times where they have let in goals late in periods that have tied or cost them games. Whether it be a game-tying goal such as Brad Richards’ with the goalie pulled at Detroit or Artemi Panarin’s power play winner with three minutes to go in a home defeat to the Blackhawks, it’s as disturbing as the Rangers’ penalty kill. A once team strength remains a flaw. They entered ranked 27th out of 30 on the PK.
In the postseason, scoring dries up. It becomes a battle won in the trenches. Five-on-five, the Rangers are capable. But they also don’t defend consistently. Special teams are an important aspect. The good news is the power play has improved. Derick Brassard converted on it with Chris Kreider screening. Kreider also scored on a tip at Detroit. The Rangers have scored at least one power play goal in five straight. Brassard, Kreider and Keith Yandle have been key contributors.
The bad news is the penalty kill remains a issue. They’ve allowed power plays goals in five of the last six. They have a tendency for giving them up at bad moments. Unless the coaching staff can fix it, it could be a disappointing Spring. Even with Lundqvist, this team is more beatable. They have struggled against the division losing all three meetings with projected first round opponent and rival the Islanders. They are 1-2-0 against the Pens and finished 2-2-1 against the Caps. They were better against Washington. A familiar opponent they have had good history with. Less convincing was losing three of four to the Devils.
So, who are the 2015-16 Rangers? After 69 games and 85 points, we still don’t have the answer.