Rather than do a traditional recap of a game I only caught the final period of, I instead will use a quote from new MSG analyst Glenn Healy, who perfectly summed up why the Blue Jackets won over the Rangers quite easily by a count of 5-2.
“The message was sent four seconds in,” Healy said in reference to Columbus physical forward Boone Jenner punching Dan Girardi after the opening face-off. He continued along with MSG’s Steve Valiquette as they showed Jenner also shove Rick Nash during another sequence.
“The Rangers score a lot of goals. But they don’t like to play in the trenches.”
That quote is one that should be posted on the wall in front of Alain Vigneault and Jeff Gorton. When push comes to shove, this team is built on speed and skill. It’s reliant on transition and pretty goals. They don’t score a lot of ugly ones. They aren’t going to make opponents pay the price.
Columbus took the season series by going two for two at The Garden winning each game convincingly. They won 5-2 with Cam Atkinson scoring twice including on a neutral zone turnover Brandon Dubinsky forced Nick Holden into. Holden fumbled the puck and Dubinsky stole it and then led Atkinson in for a lethal that Henrik Lundqvist couldn’t stop making it 4-1 early in the third.
For all intent and purposes, the game was over. There would be no Rangers comeback like they did twice in wins at Columbus. Their power play continued to fail. With under a minute left, the trio of Oscar Lindberg, Chris Kreider and Mats Zuccarello paid no attention to Josh Anderson, who was allowed to easily bury his 14th in front to make it 5-1 at 19:36. Kreider was the closest one.
By that point, it didn’t matter. The outcome had been decided. But could they at least have had some pride on that shift? It was humiliating. Even with the always hard working Jesper Fast beating the buzzer for his fifth from Marc Staal and Lindberg for some bookkeeping, it’s not the way they wanted to play. Ryan McDonagh didn’t mince words in the room. They have to play harder against a quality opponent.
Granted. This was coming. The Rangers had been on a good roll going 9-1-1 entering Sunday night. Coming off the 4-3 come from behind overtime win over the hapless Devils, the Jackets were a step up. Both teams played on Saturday. Only one dominated with Columbus humiliating the Islanders 7-zip. They did that to a seriously hot team that will probably get in as the final wildcard while the Rangers struggled with the Devils. A team headed for the lottery.
As I said in another column, they had been winning mostly thanks to Lundqvist and timely scoring. Even if Derek Stepan continues to have a disappointing season and Michael Grabner is in a cold streak, they were finding ways to win games. That can be attributed to the team’s improved depth. But Lundqvist was the biggest difference maker winning 10 games in his last 14 appearances with a GAA under 2.00 and save percentage at .939. He was due for a bad game. He allowed five goals on 26 shots.
Both Atkinson tallies he was wide open on. So, at least three of Columbus’ five goals weren’t on the goalie. But rather a shaky defense which can rear its ugly head at any moment. That is the bad reminder of how last year ended. It’s not all on Staal or Dan Girardi. Holden has come back to earth. When Brady Skjei and Adam Clendening are your most effective pair, that’s problematic. At least Clendening is making the most of his opportunity with back spasms keeping Kevin Klein out.
The Rangers are now back in the first wildcard a point behind the Jackets, who have two games at hand. They have exactly 20 games remaining. The goal is to be playing well entering the postseason. Something Stepan referred to afterwards. He did record an assist on Nash’s 18th goal. But 43 points (12-31-43) for our top center is a step in the wrong direction.
Alain Vigneault needs to make a switch. Whether it’s breaking up Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller by elevating Miller to Stepan’s line or shifting Chris Kreider back with him, something must change. You can’t have Stepan struggling like this in April or they have no chance. We still don’t know about Mika Zibanejad although he’s playing better. But we do know that if you have him with Kreider and Mats Zuccarello, none of them are great defensively. So even splitting up Kreider and Zuccarello should be considered.
The only line that’s played well recently is the fourth line with Oscar Lindberg and Fast flanked by Brandon Pirri. But it’s time for Pavel Buchnevich to get back in the lineup. So, if he’s fully recovered from the flu for Tuesday’s big match against Washington, dress him. And don’t just play him 9-10 minutes either. That’s counterproductive.
Miller, Hayes and Grabner have cooled off. When they aren’t going, the Rangers become a lot easier to play. Columbus got great goaltending from Sergei Bobrovsky (28 saves) and cashed in on Ranger mistakes.
Whatever happens in the next 48 hours could go a long way to determining what the Blueshirts do by Wednesday’s trade deadline on March 1. A hockey vacation day. Yes. I’ll be taking off for that unlike the past couple of years. So, we’ll have some fun coverage of the big trades.
I really feel what Healy stated is true about this team. The Rangers lack that physical agitator who can annoy opponents. If they somehow added that missing ingredient and upgraded the blue line, they would be taken a lot more seriously when the playoffs roll around. It’s not easy to play their style when scoring dries up. It becomes about board battles and winning pucks in the corners.
This is a fun team to watch. They’re likable. But not having that physical in your face player such as Dubinsky hurts. When they’re off, they’re very plain. Vanilla. Every once in a while, you need some chocolate to mix it up. Or maybe some rainbow sprinkles or whipped cream. A Sather special.
What will they do? I don’t know. Surprise me.