There probably are better alternatives than trying to end a slump against the red hot Maple Leafs. Winners of nine of their last 11 having only lost once in regulation, Toronto finds itself tied for third in the Atlantic Division with 50 points. During that span, the rebuilding Leafs have outscored opponents 44-29. That included a 4-2 win at the Rangers last Friday on a night they honored Steven McDonald.
Since that point, the Rangers have dropped three in a row allowing a preposterous 16 goals in losses to Toronto, Montreal and Dallas. Ugly, uglier and ugliest would be how to describe their play at the moment. Even worse, Henrik Lundqvist was in for all 16. The slumping 34-year old franchise goalie gave up all five to the Canadiens in relief of an injured Antti Raanta in only two periods. He followed that up by permitting seven more to the Stars on home ice before giving way to Magnus Hellberg for the third.
With Lundqvist allowing four-or-more goals in his last four appearances which included a 5-4 win at Columbus in which he got stronger, his goals-against-average has skyrocketed to 2.89 and save percentage has plummeted to .902. This isn’t all about the prideful former 2000 seventh round pick who’s been the backbone of a team that’s made the playoffs in all but one year since his rookie season in ’05-06.
It’s about a porous defense that has been exposed. Minus Marc Staal, who is skating, they are a terrible unit that can’t get out of its own collective way. Even workhorse Ryan McDonagh is struggling defensively. It isn’t just a Dan Girardi or Kevin Klein problem. While both certainly don’t have the foot speed to keep up with today’s faster skating transition game, rookie Brady Skjei has also been culpable. He got victimized badly on two Dallas goals the other night. Opponents have been finishing checks on him and forcing turnovers. To be honest, Skjei has been inconsistent for roughly two months. He has to get through this.
How bad has it gotten? Even dependable Nick Holden had an awful turnover and forgot to take his man leading to a second consecutive Dallas goal in 12 seconds. When things go badly, it’s usually a total team breakdown. So, it’s not only a weakened blue line which has used offensive minded Adam Clendening with mixed results.
The forwards aren’t getting the job done either. Sure. They continue to score enough goals leading the NHL in offense. With both Mika Zibanejad (2 goals in return) and Pavel Buchnevich (1-2-3 versus Dallas) finally back, Alain Vigneault has four lines he can roll. But the fourth unit centered by Brandon Pirri struggled mightily on Tuesday. They were on for two goals against and were benched. Pirri was responsible for one goal against when he never took Patrick Sharp on a wraparound. Both he and Clendening were the closest players.
There is one change to the lineup. Jesper Fast is out with an upper body injury. Oscar Lindberg is back in. He should be playing over Pirri. But the coach will have to figure that out for himself eventually.
With the Rangers continually leaving the front of the net unprotected, it’s left Lundqvist naked. Six of the Stars’ seven goals came from in front. The lone exception was an Adam Cracknell shot that beat Lundqvist short side with no one screening him. Right now, his confidence is shaken. He isn’t making the critical stops we’ve been accustomed to. He’s given up goals short side and five-hole more often. It’s all a matter of playing the angles better and challenging shooters more. When he slumps, he’s too often back in the net and off balance.
So, can the Rangers snap out of it at the Leafs against rookie leader Auston Matthews? It’s not the best match-up. In terms of speed and skill, Toronto has plenty of firepower to match the Blueshirts. They can come at you with three balanced scoring lines featuring Matthews, James van Riemsdyk and Mitch Marner. They will be without defenseman Morgan Rielly. But there’s plenty of young talent which also includes William Nylander, Connor Brown, Zach Hyman and Nikita Zaitsev. There’s old reliable Tyler Bozak still teaming with Van Riemsdyk. But they have much more support with Matthews leading the way with 22 goals and 38 points. Plus Nazem Kadri and Jake Gardiner.
If it’s anything like last week, then the Rangers could be in for a long night. They got fore-checked to death and could’ve lost by a wider margin. That said, Lundqvist still allowed two stoppable shots with Nylander catching him off his angle and JVR finding the five-hole following a Girardi gaffe that allowed a pass to get through for a Toronto power play goal.
The Rangers have all said the right things. That they’re embarrassed and can’t leave Lundqvist by himself. It isn’t fair. By the same token, Lundqvist knows he must be better. A better start would help. Too often, he gives up an early one and his teammates are fighting an uphill battle. A few big saves at the start could set the tone.
Vigneault still believes in him. So do his teammates. The big thing is this. This team has permitted seven goals three times in the last month. The other two coming in losses at Pittsburgh and home for Minnesota. Raanta got victimized against the Pens while Lundqvist was in before being chased by the Wild before Christmas.
Maybe it’s the system. Vigneault has the talent to play an aggressive style emphasizing fast skating and transition. The trouble is there are moments where the team is taking too many risks leaving them flatfooted to play defense. The defense pinches and looks to keep plays alive. But when they get caught, look out. The same applies when a forward makes a dangerous back pass that can be intercepted fueling a counterattack.
So, can they figure it out? The All-Star break is the weekend of Jan. 28-29. The Rangers have four games left starting tonight. They remain in fourth place in a tough Metro Division with 57 points. The next two games are 1/22-23 at Detroit and home on Monday for the Kings. Then the Flyers visit next Wednesday.
With teams starting to play better hockey behind them, the time is now for the Rangers to straighten out. If they don’t, they could find themselves falling back to the pack just fighting for a wildcard which is where they currently are. They’re still seven clear of the second wildcard. But it’s getting awfully crowded.
I would like to see them play with more urgency. Particularly defensively. They can score with anyone. But it takes more discipline and better effort to defend their zone and protect Lundqvist. Make it harder on opponents by keeping them to the outside and boxing out in front. It remains to be seen if this group is capable of doing it.
The watchful eye of Jeff Gorton along with the organization are paying attention. Game time is 7:30 at Air Canada Centre. We’ll see if they can respond.