Brutal loss to Kings brings more questions for Rangers


Groundhog Day At Staples: Anze Kopitar celebrates with Jake Muzzin after scoring the game-tying and game-winning goals to once again give the Rangers 2014 Stanley Cup Final flashbacks. AP Photo/Chris Carlson/Getty Images

Groundhog Day At Staples: Anze Kopitar celebrates with Jake Muzzin after scoring the game-tying and game-winning goals to once again give the Rangers 2014 Stanley Cup Final flashbacks. AP Photo/Chris Carlson/Getty Images

It was deja vu all over again. Back at the scene of the 2014 Stanley Cup Final, the Rangers had a two-goal lead in the third period against the Kings. It turned into Groundhog Day at Staples Center. Predictably, they gagged it up allowing the Kings to score twice in regulation before losing 94 seconds into overtime 4-3 on a Anze Kopitar deflection past an irate Henrik Lundqvist.

The normally unflappable goalie went off on Kopitar’s game-tying goal scored with 4:10 left in the third period which was upheld following a coaches challenge by Alain Vigneault. Feeling he was interfered with by Tyler Toffoli, Lundqvist fumed to reporters afterwards.

Regarding whether he’s correct, it’s hard to say. It’s true that Toffoli was in the crease and made contact with Lundqvist. However, while there was no explanation from the officials on the ice, Toronto told the media that Toffoli was pushed in by Ryan McDonagh. So, that made it a good goal.

That it was the Kings in Lundqvist’s first start against them since Game 5 on June 13, 2014 probably didn’t improve his mood. Unlike the Dwight King fiasco in Game 2, there was a video review due to the challenge. The ruling came in the same building causing Lundqvist’s meltdown.

Whether or not you agree with the tying goal, it doesn’t matter. It was another blown lead in the third period. It was the 15th goal the Rangers have allowed in the final five minutes of the third. An NHL worst eye popping statistic that they can’t escape. It also was the Kings. A opponent they can’t beat. In the first match at MSG, they got a tying goal in the final 30 seconds and won it in overtime. This time, after Kevin Hayes put them behind two, they responded immediately with nobody taking Kyle Clifford on Jeff Carter’s backdoor feed that cut it to 3-2 two minutes later.

The fundamental flaw with this team is they go into a collective shell when they have a lead. Case in point. Following J.T. Miller’s unassisted tally past Jonathan Quick on a great rush and finish, the Kings responded 19 seconds later in the first. Dustin Brown out-muscled Dan Boyle to beat Lundqvist from distance with Carter in front. Defensively, this is who the Rangers are. A unpredictable inconsistent mess shift to shift. It’s why I don’t have much confidence that this group can succeed in the postseason.

Currently, they’re second in the division with 88 points. Three up on the Islanders and four clear of the Penguins. They have 11 games left including one against the Isles on Apr. 7 and one against the Pens on Mar. 27. They both have games at hand. But the Rangers lead with 37 regulation/overtime wins. The Pens have 35 and the Isles 34.

Unless things change systematically, it doesn’t matter where they finish. How many times can this team blow leads in awful fashion? They’re not the same defensively. No longer able to lock down like past clubs that made deep runs in the playoffs, it’s hard to take them seriously. Not when aging blueliners Dan Girardi and Marc Staal continue to struggle. Not when Keith Yandle becomes a turnover machine against heavy teams as he did last night. It was his awful icing off a forced stretch pass during the 3-on-3 that resulted in a clean faceoff win by Kopitar over Derick Brassard and then Kopitar’s terrific tip of a Jake Muzzin shot for the OT winner.

For some, the scapegoat is the declining Girardi, who got caught chasing up high on Clifford’s tally. Never mind that Yandle and Brassard were also liable. That Vigneault had Yandle with Girardi along with the reunited first line of Brassard, Mats Zuccarello and Rick Nash all out following Hayes’ goal was a huge miscalculation. It’s not just the D who struggle defending. Brassard and Zuccarello aren’t known for their defense. And Nash just played his fourth game since returning.

Vigneault would’ve been better off sending any of the other three units out. Why not the newly minted fourth line who seem to have good chemistry? For the second consecutive night, Tanner Glass, Dominic Moore and Viktor Stalberg were effective. A good backcheck by Stalberg at the end of his shift led to Boyle stealing the puck from Brown and beating Quick top shelf for a 2-1 lead in the second. Stalberg’s been one of the hardest working forwards. He’s proven me wrong. What ever line he plays on, his energy rubs off.

A closer look at who’s been on the ice for the last five games that the Blueshirts allowed a game-tying goal or game-winning goal reveals that it’s not just one defenseman. Per Larry Brooks’ tweet:

It was McDonagh and Klein who were on for Kopitar’s controversial GTG at 15:50 of the third. On what else but a Kopitar faceoff win, Drew Doughty worked the puck to Milan Lucic. Lucic’s shot went through a maze of players battling in front of Lundqvist. Both Toffoli and Kopitar were there. So too were McDonagh and Moore. While the Kings celebrated Kopitar’s tip in front, Vigneault quickly called the refs over to initiate a challenge. After a couple of minutes, they ruled it a good goal.

“When you get calls like that, it’s definitely a flashback,” Lundqvist told the New York Post’s Brett Cyrgalis. “No question.”

Does it come off bad? Sure. It seems that he’s blaming the officiating for another excruciating loss. McDonagh was more analytical.

“I think that’s the most frustrating part. We seem to give this team plenty of opportunities,” the Rangers captain said. “Obviously they have some experience and chemistry, and they capitalize on it, but that’s shades of what we went through in the finals right there.”

The haunting aspect is it’s been happening all year. We saw it with the Caps in what would’ve been their best win in early January. They rallied from two down in the third scoring three unanswered. But weren’t able to finish it off. Instead, allowing a Nicklas Backstrom GTG with six seconds left followed by an Alex Ovechkin OT winner end to end. It happened against the Islanders in a game they fell behind 3-0 and 4-2. They worked so hard to tie it but allowed Cal Clutterbuck’s winner with 1:28 left followed by Frans Nielsen’s empty netter 27 seconds later.

This is who the 2015-16 Rangers are. A good team that can compete with anyone. Good enough to go into Anaheim and beat the more physical Ducks. Good enough to beat the Caps twice including once with Antti Raanta. But also the same team that blew one to the defending champion Blackhawks at MSG permitting three unanswered following power play goals from Brassard and Boyle to start the third. In that one, it was undisciplined penalties causing their demise. Against the Red Wings, the same story with Brad Richards forcing overtime at 19:28. Pavel Datsyuk had a shot deflect off Darren Helm in overtime.

The big question is with 11 games remaining, can they change the script? Or are they doomed to fail? Many pundits have pondered if “the window” closed with the bitter Game 7 home defeat to the Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final. This core has been through a lot. What started under former coach John Tortorella in 2012 has continued under Vigneault with the closest five-game Stanley Cup Final in 2014 followed by the unpredictable gut wrenching seven-game series loss in 2015.

Are they done? No one knows the answer. Only the 18 skaters and goalie can provide that detail along with the coaching staff. See ya this Spring.

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About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included two stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil games. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has scored Berkeley Carroll basketball games since 2006 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. From players, coaches to administrators, it's a first class program. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree.
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