Too often when a team falters, it’s pinned on one player. Case in point, the current state of the Rangers. Much has been made of the downturn defenseman Dan Girardi has taken this season. The 31-year old veteran who has given his heart and soul to the team for a decade is not the same player. Once part of a shutdown tandem with captain Ryan McDonagh, his play has suffered.
Unsurprisingly, the wear and tear from the recent postseasons is finally showing. A player who has sacrificed his body for the cause blocking shots while defending against opponent’s best, Girardi has slowed down. He has struggled in his own end more than in past seasons. Not the best skater, his puck management has been a issue as has his coverage. The decision making isn’t as sharp.
However, it’s not just one player who has under performed. Marc Staal has been up and down as well. The 29-year old former ’05 first round pick in the same draft as Sidney Crosby has been a stalwart since joining the Blueshirts in ’07-08. Once, he and Girardi were the top pair who had the difficult task of drawing the toughest assignments. One was drafted while the other was signed as a rookie free agent. They took different paths to the NHL. Girardi recently played his 700th game. Staal has played over 600.
They are proud warriors who have battled through injuries to play. It’s not their fault former GM Glen Sather gave them long-term contracts with no-movement clauses. While many cynics have cried over spilled milk, they earned it. Even if it was known how risky the deals were due to the taxing style each play, at the time it was understandable why they were kept. Sather chose Girardi over former captain Ryan Callahan two years ago sending the gritty emotional leader to the Lightning in a captain for captain trade for Martin St. Louis. The end result was the franchise’s first Stanley Cup appearance since 1994. As close a five-game series as possible with the Kings prevailing in all three games at Staples Center in sudden death. Callahan’s Lightning beat the St. Louis Blueshirts in a bizarre seven-game Eastern Conference Final in 2015.
If the last two postseasons ended in excruciating fashion under coach Alain Vigneault, this Spring could be without such drama. Entering tonight’s home match against the Atlantic-leading Panthers, the Rangers are tied with the Penguins for second in the Metropolitan Division with 88 points. It’s a flatfooted tie with each team boasting a 40-24-8 record with an identical amount of regulation/overtime wins (37). Both have 10 games remaining. Pittsburgh is second due to owning the head-to-head match-up. They lead 2-1 with the final one this Sunday at MSG.
After playing one of their more complete games in a impressive 2-1 road win over Anaheim, the Rangers dropped the final two games in California. In a frustrating 4-3 overtime defeat at the Kings, they fell apart by allowing the final two goals of the third period including Anze Kopitar’s tying goal with under five minutes left. The 15th time they have given up a game-tying or game-winning goal with five minutes or less remaining in the third. The OT was uglier with a puzzling Keith Yandle stretch pass to no one resulting in a rare icing during 3-on-3. Kopitar beat Derick Brassard on the offensive draw and then deflected home a Jake Muzzin shot past Henrik Lundqvist for the winner.
Even though they got a point, it was like Groundhog Day. Another third period lead blown and to the Kings, who also did it in 5-4 overtime win at MSG on Feb. 12. A big, physical team, Los Angeles owns the Rangers. They’re also back in the playoffs after missing out last year. It’s one thing to lose in a competitive game against one of the league’s best. But quite another to fail to show in a mind boggling 4-1 blowout loss at San Jose. A game so bad that it prompted Sather to visit the locker room. They were severely outplayed by the Sharks, who got 52 shots on net and had over 70 shot attempts.
Henrik Lundqvist was on his own making remarkable saves for two periods before wilting. Joe Thornton, Joel Ward and Joe Pavelski scored in succession during a brutal 3:20 span that prompted Vigneault to get Lundqvist replacing him with Antti Raanta.
“I don’t know what to say to that,” Lundqvist told the New York Post’s Brett Cyrgalis on Saturday following the loss to the Sharks. “I think it’s important we understand how important this is, the situation we’re in. But I think the best thing you can do, for everyone, is to look at yourself. What can I do to make this team better? What can I do to help this team win?
“Then hopefully we have 20 guys doing that instead of looking over your shoulder.”
While Lundqvist chose his words carefully, McDonagh was more poignant indicating, “It seemed like guys weren’t willing to compete hard, and that’s a very hard thing to say, but you have to admit it sometimes.”
Clearly, this is a fragile team that’s not very confident. Their inconsistent play isn’t encouraging. The foundation which once was the defense has broken down. While Girardi and Staal’s regression was predictable, it still doesn’t fully explain the underachievement of Kevin Hayes or Chris Kreider’s up and down performance. Even top performers Brassard and Mats Zuccarello aren’t without blame. Each has been negligible defensively with Brassard in particular unwilling to backcheck. Zuccarello has never been a strong defensive forward and sometimes gets caught watching. But at least he hustles back.
All year, Vigneault has juggled his lines searching for the right combo. Even after acquiring Eric Staal, this team isn’t scoring enough to offset the defensive deficiencies and a woeful penalty kill that ranks near the bottom. By now, the veteran coach who has guided two teams to the Stanley Cup Final should’ve figured it out. Whether it’s adjusting his defensive system to better protect slower skaters like Girardi or Staal or finding two players the newly acquired Eric Staal can play with, he better figure it out quick.
His mistreatment of once top nine forward Oscar Lindberg is inexplicable. A harder working forward who comes back in his end, Lindberg is a two-way player. With Hayes continuing to baffle with sloppy turnovers and not bothering to come back hard, why not sit out the second-year forward for a night? Outside of a good spurt last month, he’s been the biggest disappointment. A player of his size with strong possession skills should be a lock for 20 goals and 50 points. Instead, he is 12-20-32 and has lost 100 more faceoffs. Vigneault is trying him on the wing with Staal and J.T. Miller hoping it clicks.
Much criticism of the coach has been due to his loyalty to Tanner Glass. However, unlike other bloggers who emphasize Corsi, I can’t fault him. Glass has been a consistent hard worker with a lunch pail work ethic. Since Vigneault shifted Viktor Stalberg down to the fourth line with Glass and Dominic Moore, they have been effective at even strength. Showing the ability to forecheck, that line isn’t the problem. It’s been the failure of the others to consistently perform. Derek Stepan has been one of their best forwards during this stretch. But he’s without a point in four straight and is 16-22-38 in 62 contests. He and Kreider must be factors down the stretch. They’ll have Jesper Fast on the right side tonight.
Vigneault seems to prefer using the hustling Fast in the top six. He’s a right shot who outworks the opposition. The 10 goals and 15 helpers is a nice reward for a good team guy who plays both ends. However, he isn’t a top six forward. If the coach wants to try him on the third line with Staal, that’s a better fit. As for Lindberg, it’s a mystery as to why he has become the odd man out. There’s no reason he shouldn’t play. If that means sitting Glass a couple of games, so be it. But also, Lindberg is a top nine forward. If they had him on the third line and moved Fast down to the fourth line with Moore and Stalberg, it would be better.
The bottom line with the coach is he’s loyal to a fault. It’s why he stuck with Girardi keeping him with McDonagh for so long. His loyalty to the vets is understandable. For the team to succeed, he needs them. Now, it’s Kevin Klein with McDonagh while Girardi works with Yandle, whose defensive play has slipped. It’s no longer working. Staal continues to play with Dan Boyle, who shows his age during some shifts and on others, he scores a highlight reel goal like the sweet finish against his former team at the Shark Tank.
Vigneault’s misuse of Dylan McIlrath has been a huge miscalculation. When he played, McIlrath was the perfect complement to Yandle. The big behemoth demonstrated that he could play strong in front of his net and clear out the crease. An area that’s been a sore spot for years with this team since Dion Phaneuf ended Mike Sauer’s career. Now, McIlrath is recovering from a knee injury sustained in a home loss to the Islanders earlier this month. He’s close to returning. But will he even see the light of day from a stubborn coach who is unwilling to change?
All these questions continue as the Rangers get ready to drop the puck on 33rd and 7th Avenue against the Panthers.