A New Year’s Hangover


Justin Bailey celebrates his first career NHL goal in a Sabres 4-1 win over a lifeless Rangers, who emulated the Knicks after watching them a night earlier. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy Buffalo Sabres.

How many people have over celebrated the holidays and then wound up completely hungover? :raises hands: Oh yeah. I’ve been there and done that. Now, I’m just recovering from whatever flu or sinus infection I have. I didn’t even go out on New Year’s Eve. I was stuck home watching hockey and the ball countdown along with my favorite Honeymooners episodes.

For the Rangers, maybe they shouldn’t have bothered with tonight’s match against the Sabres. Technically, they were there for all to see at MSG even on my TV. That much was evident. But if this wasn’t a New Year’s Hangover, then my name isn’t Derek Felix. They were in a word awful. Brutal. Lifeless. It was like they had the blood drained out of them.

Buffalo easily won the second meeting by a count of 4-1. The really sad aspect is I told my Dad I didn’t think they matched up. My score prediction was 5-2, Sabres. So, I was in the right ballpark. What was their excuse? A bunch of Rangers were seen watching the hapless Knicks humiliate themselves against Orlando last night. Maybe they shouldn’t have watched the Knicks. They played like them.

Honestly, fast skating teams who can hit and forecheck give the Rangers problems. So, I had a bad feeling. Buffalo had already beaten them once in come from behind fashion 4-3 on Dec. 1. That was the game where our D fell apart. It was Jack Eichel and Evander Kane who did them in.

The rematch a month later at a different venue was a similar result. Both Eichel and Kane scored as Buffalo only needed 19 shots for four goals past Henrik Lundqvist. That included Justin Bailey’s first career NHL goal on what seemed like the only Buffalo shot in the second period for so long. Of course, it was Bailey’s first NHL point in his 12th game. Gift wrapped by a blatant turnover by Kevin KleinĀ that allowed the Sabres to be in control up 3-0 at 1:03 of the second.

It was the only period the guys in blue jerseys with red and white played well in. In a period in which they out-shot Buffalo 15-4, the best they could muster was a Nick Holden one-time blast past Anders Nilsson on a delayed penalty. The same Holden who has been this team’s most consistent defenseman. He now has eight goals. None of the other Rangers on the blue line even have combined for that many.

That includes Ryan McDonagh, whose game has slipped due to being buried with Dan Girardi or Klein. Turnover machines, it’s even spread to the number one defenseman who is leaned on heavily by Alain Vigneault. McDonagh had a forgettable night finishing with a team worst five giveaways. As a team, the Rangers totaled 19 while the Sabres had only seven. Far too many to win a hockey game against an opponent they are better than.

The problem with that theory is it doesn’t take into account what the Sabres bring. They are really fast and an aggressive skating team who can force mistakes. The Rangers made a bunch which explained away a bitter three-goal home defeat that had Vigneault none too pleased.

“I don’t want to take away anything from the opponent. We didn’t do a good enough job preparing for this game,” the Rangers coach said. “We weren’t ready when the game started. Our execution was nonexistent. We didn’t have the D that could make a pass and our compete level was not good enough.”

Pretty damning assessment from the normally cool demeanor of Vigneault. He’ll never be cut out of the same cloth as John Tortorella. But he doesn’t have to be to evaluate how poorly his team played. They were off from the very beginning. It was ugly.

The Sabres scored twice in a lifeless first period. Buffalo was much more aggressive using their skating and puck possession to carry the play. They really deserved their two-goal lead. Why? Because they earned it. Forget about what the Sabres’ recent record was. They have imposing players who can make life difficult on the Rangers.

It still didn’t excuse some of the lackluster mistakes we saw. For example, Chris Kreider letting his check go and watching Zemgus Girgensons score uncontested at 12:17. Kreider had him and then took a nap. The Sabres outworked the Rangers behind the net. Brian Gionta and household name William Carrier combined to set up Girgensons’ fourth.

Having looked dead for way too long, the Rangers began to come on as the period went on. They put together a couple of good shifts in the offensive zone. But just when it seemed they would take some momentum into the second, an awful turnover resulted in Kane slamming home his ninth from Sam Reinhart and Kyle Okposo at 19:21.

The goal was a direct result of a lousy line change. Mats Zuccarello failed to get the puck in deep. That allowed the fast Sabres to transition quickly with Reinhart getting a tough low shot on Lundqvist that he couldn’t control. Holden was too late to cover Kane, who buried his ninth. After doing virtually nothing before Eichel returned, Kane has been a different player. He was a beast scoring his sixth in the last 10 while later wreaking havoc on Buffalo’s third goal.

Before they got going, the Rangers were guilty of another putrid turnover at the start of the second. A very aggressive Kane forecheck forced Klein to cough up the puck. That allowed Bailey to score unassisted beating Lundqvist at 63 seconds of the second for a 3-0 lead. In a word, embarrassing. I probably would’ve used my timeout there. But Vigneault didn’t. Not only did Klein turn it over but his snow angel only made it worse for Lundqvist on Bailey’s first NHL goal.

Those are still the ones you expect your goalie to stop. Lundqvist used to do it routinely. But he’s 34 now and will turn 35 in March. He’s not always going to be able to bail out his teammates. The signs of old age catching up to a future Hall of Famer who might never win a Stanley Cup. Not with the current state of the defense. Something has to be done and soon. There’s no way they can keep Girardi or Klein with McDonagh. Adam Clendening isn’t a long-term solution.

In a period where they picked up their play, they were only able to solve Nilsson once. It took a perfect shot to beat him. On a delayed call, Oscar Lindberg and J.T. Miller combined to feed Holden at the left point for a nice one-time blast to cut it to 3-1 at 15:55.

That was it. Nilsson didn’t have to work too hard finishing with 24 saves. His best came on Kreider when he stoned him in front on a nifty Zuccarello set up. There just wasn’t enough compete. The Rangers wasted their only power play. Despite holding a 15-4 edge in shots and a significant edge in possession, they couldn’t draw any closer.

A loss of discipline from rookie Jimmy Vesey sealed their fate 18 seconds into the third when he was called for holding. With Vesey in the box, all he could do was watch helplessly as Matt Moulson and Reinhart set up Eichel on the doorstep for his eighth at 1:10 to restore a three-goal lead. In two games versus the Rangers, Eichel has three goals. Two of the three have come on the power play.

The Rangers don’t see the Sabres again for another month until Feb. 2 at Buffalo. Should we just write that down as a loss?

What can’t be explained is the lack of effort from this team in the third. It was like once Eichel scored, they gave up. That isn’t a characteristic of the Rangers. They usually still battle and keep coming. They went a long time without a shot on goal. It was despicable. A totally awful performance.

When Vigneault was asked about Clendening for tomorrow, he said he’d have to watch the tape. His focus was on the Flyers with an NBC exclusive on Rivalry Night. He said the Flyers will be ready. His team better be. Or it will be over fast.

BONY 3 Stars: Do I Have To? They didn’t bother. So why should I. Anyone in a Sabres jersey. No one in a Blueshirt.

Note: Matt Puempel was back out with concussion symptoms. Nicklas Jensen came up from Hartford and skated in his place.

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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