It’s time to panic for bumbling Blueshirts


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Mika Zibanejad scored twice in his return but the Rangers again broke down defensively with Henrik Lundqvist allowing seven goals in a bitter 7-6 home loss at MSG. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy NYRangers.

I figured they would respond to such an awful loss at Montreal. How wrong was I? Instead, it was more of the same as the Rangers rolled out the welcome mat for the Stars who enjoyed the first two periods scoring seven times before clinging on for dear life to prevail 7-6 in a wild game at MSG.

There is nothing pretty about what’s going on. Ever since I acquired Henrik Lundqvist in my fantasy hockey league to shore up destroy my goaltending, he’s allowed an impossible 16 goals in seven periods. It’s indescribable. If you want to pin the blame on me, by all means go ahead. I thought he was capable of turning it around. I am not ready to throw in the towel yet. But unless something drastic changes with the team defense and a risky offensive system in which they take more chances under coach Alain Vigneault, I may have cost myself not only first place but a chance of finishing in the top three for the money.

It’s hard to fathom what’s happened. We all understand that the Rangers defensively aren’t good. Ever since Marc Staal went down, they have fallen apart at the seams. It didn’t start that way. The team responded to Staal’s injury by going into Philadelphia and Columbus winning respectively with the highlight a 5-4 come from behind win at the Blue Jackets on 1/7. The last time Lundqvist won, he still gave up four. So, over his last four appearances, he’s allowed four-or-more totaling 20 goals allowed on 113 shots in 10 total periods. That is eye opening. If you exclude a 5-2 win at the Flyers, he’s allowed four-or-better in five of the last six games.

Tonight was tough on the eyes. As bad as it was seeing him interviewed again by MSG’s John Giannone and being as blunt as possible in describing how embarrassed and frustrated he is, it was even worse watching the first two periods. He allowed seven goals on 27 shots in two periods of work before Magnus Hellberg replaced him for the third. The seven were the most he’s ever given up at home.

In this one, the defense was putrid. That much is true and has been during a three-game losing streak in which the Rangers have been outscored 16-12. As Lundqvist pointed out to Giannone during his interview. From a tweet on my Twitter feed which can be followed at NewYorkPuck.

He also indicated that sometimes, playing that way is going to have an affect on other parts of their game. Mainly by opening themselves up, it can leave defensemen trapped and not able to get back. But also, it doesn’t explain all the blown assignments in front of Lundqvist’s net. Six of seven Dallas goals were scored from within 20 feet. The only one that wasn’t was an Adam Cracknell shot from the face-off circle which Lundqvist missed. That one was stoppable along with a bad wraparound allowed to Patrick Sharp in which he completely got wrong footed. He also gave up the five-hole on a Jamie Benn backhand in the first period.

Worrisome is that he seems to have no answers. He is saying the right things. Lundqvist has always been accountable. Win or lose, he’s by his locker and doesn’t duck out. Confidence is a shaky thing. When you have it, you can do anything. When you don’t, you feel helpless. That’s how I would describe the Rangers’ franchise goalie, who at 34 is going through the worst stretch of his career.

The game didn’t start out badly by any stretch. Only 27 seconds in, Derek Stepan took a Chris Kreider feed from behind the net and beat Dallas starter Antti Niemi with a wraparound for his 11th. Mats Zuccarello picked up the secondary assist. That line was terrific again in defeat combining for three goals and five assists. Zuccarello hasn’t been able to finish but he continues to put up points recording three helpers. Kreider continues to produce scoring a power play goal and an assist in the defeat. Stepan had two goals and a helper.

Offense isn’t the problem. Keeping goals out is. The defense totally let down Lundqvist again. A turning point came when an obvious Kreider goaltender interference in which he bowled over Niemi negated a Nick Holden goal that would’ve made it 2-0. Instead, the Stars, who already had taken over the game by out-shooting the Rangers 9-2, went to work on the power play. The Rangers were victimized again on a declining penalty kill with a Tyler Seguin pass across banking off Ryan McDonagh and Benn right to Patrick Eaves, who deposited it for his 16th to tie the score at 12:34.

Making matters worse, Holden over skated the puck turning it over inside his own blue line- leading to Sharp finishing off the first of two from Radek Faksa just 12 seconds later for a 2-1 Stars lead. The Rangers’ most consistent defenseman messed up and a sliding Brady Skjei couldn’t prevent Faksa’s cross-ice feed from finding an open Sharp for a lay-up. At that point, I had already started to waver on the game. The Sabres were taking on the Maple Leafs in a battle between American first round picks Jack Eichel and Auston Matthews.

By the time I flipped back, Benn was celebrating his 11th goal a day after breaking his stick three different times in a road loss at Buffalo. This one showed more Ranger follies as they allowed a two-on-one with Benn able to go thru the wickets on a beatable Lundqvist for the Stars’ third straight goal at 17:54. Cody Eakin and Eaves netted the assists. Eakin was public enemy number one for running Lundqvist the last time the teams faced in Dallas when he got the gate in a 2-0 Rangers win on 12/15. He served a five-game suspension.

In this one, the Rangers sought retribution. Rick Nash got to Eakin early with a good clean hit. At the start of the second, Kreider gave Eakin a shove from behind near the glass which led to the two dropping the gloves for a wrestling match. Both received five minutes for fighting at 1:52. Even though it was noted that Kreider used Eakin’s helmet to hit him which is supposed to be an automatic ejection according to NHL rules. We’ll see if anything comes from that. The Rangers can ill afford to lose Kreider to a suspension.

When former Ranger Lauri Korpikoski separated Skjei from the puck with a good check against the glass behind the net, he then easily came out and fed a wide open Antoine Roussel for his seventh to make it four consecutive Stars goals at 4:32. It was a weak play by Skjei. But no one took Roussel in front. It was an easy tap in which made it 4-1.

By that point, I’d seen enough. I needed to go to CVS to pick up some stuff and eat. I was gone from the car for approximately 20 minutes. In that span, the score went from 4-1 to 4-3 to remarkably 7-3 with the Stars celebrating number seven as I put on ESPN Radio with Kenny Albert and Dave Maloney discussing how bad it had gone.

During that period, the Rangers made their first comeback attempt. In his return, Mika Zibanejad got back to scoring when he neatly deflected home a Rick Nash shot for his sixth to cut it to 4-2 at 9:56. On a second straight dominant shift in which Pavel Buchnevich first missed a gaping net, he stuck with it and got a favorable carom off the back boards from a wide Kevin Klein shot to beat Niemi for his fifth at 12:06. Buchnevich is on a serious roll. He also picked up a secondary helper on Zibanejad’s first of two. The electrifying 21-year old Russian rookie had three more points in the loss to extend his point streak to seven straight dating back to Nov. 5. There’s no question that had he not gone down with back spasms, he’d be in the hunt for the Calder.

But with the Blueshirts suddenly only down one, they fell apart again. It happened quickly when on the following shift, Sharp scored on a stuff in only 48 seconds later to restore a two-goal lead with 7:06 remaining in the second. Less than three minutes later, here came Cracknell on a two-on-one when he unleashed a wrist shot by Lundqvist that was unscreened. As if that weren’t bad enough, Eakin scored his first when he got to a loose puck in front and beat Lundqvist less than two minutes later to suddenly make it three Dallas goals over a 4:46 span. Boos rained down at the buzzer with the Rangers looking finished trailing 7-3.

But in the third with Hellberg in, a funny thing happened. The Rangers didn’t give up. Instead, they got the momentum back early thanks to a Kreider power play goal when he redirected a Stepan pass in front for his 18th cutting it to 7-4 at 3:11. Pressing for more, they then dominated at even strength when during an extended shift for the top line, Stepan was able to find a McDonagh rebound and snap it upstairs for his second of the game to suddenly make it 7-5 with still 14:29 left.

With the crowd back in it of what was left (and I wonder how many stayed), it was Zibanejad who was able to get his second of the game from in front with the puck taking a nice carom to beat Niemi 1:55 later for a 7-6 deficit. There was still 12:34 remaining. Nash and Buchnevich picked up the assists. It was another great shift in which they had the Stars on their heels.

One thing about Dallas. They can become very fragile once they give up goals. Lindy Ruff’s club became conservative and tentative, allowing the Rangers to dominant play. At that point, the fiery former Buffalo bench boss had seen enough. He called timeout and replaced Niemi with Kari Lehtonen. At the time, I didn’t think much of it. Sure. It was a good timeout to settle his team down. But Lehtonen hasn’t exactly had a good history against the Rangers.

After Niemi had given up three goals on 13 shots during the first part of the third, Lehtonen came in relief and shut the door. He had to make some very tough saves. He stopped all 12 Rangers shots to preserve a one-goal win for the Stars, making Ruff look like a genius. It didn’t come easy.

The Rangers spent plenty of time in the Dallas zone. They had the puck for seemingly ever during extended shifts. With the crowd urging them on, they fired from every angle. Klein was stopped once and missed on another attempt. McDonagh was denied.

Even when they turned the puck over as Adam Clendening did getting caught, Hellberg made a great save stoning Sharp with a glove stop that got the crowd on his side. During their recent struggles, that’s the big save that’s been missing. He made another robbing Seguin with a sliding kick save on an odd-man rush. Hellberg only faced four shots stopping them all. But the confidence he did it with makes me wonder if he shouldn’t get the next start Thursday at Toronto. I put it up as a poll and so far, more Ranger fans have voted in favor of the 25-year old Swedish unknown they traded for from Nashville over a year ago.

From looking at my timeline, Vigneault has indicated that Lundqvist is going to play. It is the time to find out if he can regain his confidence. He said he still has confidence in him. Why wouldn’t he? I guess the only other thing to say in response is that there’s no way of knowing if Hellberg could perform consistently in a 60-minute game. Especially at Toronto, who came back to beat Buffalo 4-3 and are now up to 50 points.

The one thing I would say is I like how the Rangers responded when he was in. They seemed to play with more desperation and urgency. Most importantly, Hellberg gave them a chance at the comeback by making two great saves. Lundqvist has always been able to provide that. But he hasn’t come through lately. It makes the whole goalie situation interesting. How will they play in front of him? Based on some of the responses from teammates, they’re embarrassed by it.

Every teammate is being accountable here. There’s no question about the closeness of this group. They are talented enough offensively. But without better defense, they can’t be successful. Here was Vigneault too on the slump:

The big question I have for the coach is will he make any adjustment. He emphasizes speed and transition creating offense. This team continues to score goals. It’s just that they’re giving up too many which is putting them in trouble. The Caps and Blue Jackets are pulling away. The Rangers are coming back to the pack. They have to get it righted and fast.

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see how it goes. The next two are on the road with Thursday at Toronto and Sunday at Detroit. Then it’s back home for the Kings and Flyers before the All-Star break. It doesn’t matter who the opponent is. It won’t come easy.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Derek Stepan, NYRangers (2 goals-11th, 12th, assist, 8 shots, +1 in 29 shifts-18:00)

2nd Star-Patrick Eaves, Stars (goal-16th, 2 assists, 3 shots, +1 in 25 shifts-13:51)

1st Star-Patrick Sharp, Stars (2 goals-3rd, 4th, 5 shots, +1 in 26 shifts-16:33)

Notes: Buchnevich’s seven-game point streak which includes the last three games since returning from rehabbing his back gives him 5-6-11 during that stretch which started between 11/6-12. … Zibanejad’s two goals in his return from a broken leg were his first since 11/20. Dating back to Nov. 15, he’s on a four-game point streak with six points (4-2-6) upping his season total to 17 points (7-10-17) in 20 games. … With three helpers, Zuccarello matched his career high for a game also doing it against Minnesota on 12/23 in a 7-4 home loss. … Nash had two assists. … Clendening, Klein and McDonagh each tallied an assist. … Victimized for two Dallas goals, the fourth line of Jimmy Vesey, Brandon Pirri and Jesper Fast were benched. … Korpikoski tallied two assists and Benn recorded a goal and two helpers for the Stars. … The Rangers were edged on draws by the Stars 34-32 despite a strong performance from Stepan (12-and-9). Faksa dominated going 16-and-8.

 

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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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