It was a choke of epic proportions. Plain and simple. After a drive following the predictable frustrating conclusion, I can’t think of anything else to call it. How can any Ranger explain away blowing three two-goal leads including a 5-3 lead with over three minutes left? They somehow managed the unthinkable. In giving up two goals to new Ranger killer Jean-Gabriel Pageau over the last 3:19 of regulation, they choked in awful fashion.
That it would be Pageau who had already completed a hat trick by tying it on a great redirection with 62 seconds left- winning the wild game with goal number four at 82:54 of the second overtime- summed up a wasted Saturday. The Senators rallied to stun the Rangers 6-5 in sudden death taking Game 2 and holding serve in the best-of-seven second round Atlantic Division series. They now lead 2-0 with a must have Game 3 at MSG for the Blueshirts Tuesday. In fact, they probably need to win both home games to have any realistic chance of winning the series.
Through no fault but their own, they now are in a deep 0-2 hole against a much better offensive opponent. The Sens proved it by scoring six goals on 34 shots past Henrik Lundqvist, who picked the wrong time for his worst effort of the postseason. At least two of the six goals were ones he’d like back. Of course, both came against Pageau, who turned into John Druce. His speed and grit along with uncanny ability to finish undid a two-goal effort from Brady Skjei along with a pair of shorthanded goals from Michael Grabner and Derek Stepan.
In the NHL Playoffs, the unpredictable can happen. It did. Now, the Rangers must dig deep to get back in it or face the prospect of being sent packing sooner than anyone anticipated when this series started.
Where did it go wrong? For starters, they couldn’t handle prosperity. I can’t think of another playoff game where this group blew a two-goal lead that late with Lundqvist the goalie. Give the Sens full marks for never giving up. They showed a lot of confidence and kept coming. But this isn’t about what they did. Rather what the Rangers didn’t.
The perplexing thing is it’s not like they sat back. They had nine shots in the third to the Sens’ eight. Even after Skjei scored a highlight reel goal by curling, dragging and then going five-hole to make it 5-3 with 14:50 remaining, they didn’t stop attacking. That’s what makes it so shocking.
Following Pageau’s brilliant redirect of a Zack Smith shot that made it 5-4 with 3:19 remaining, a hustling Jesper Fast kept a puck in at the Ottawa blue line allowing Grabner to get a great chance. But his shot was easily gloved by Craig Anderson with 1:52 left. That gave the Sens the shot they needed. Following an icing, Pageau beat Kevin Hayes on a offensive draw. Before you knew it, Erik Karlsson dished across for a Kyle Turris shot from a sharp angle that Pageau neatly deflected home to tie the score with 1:02 remaining sending the fans at Canadian Tire Centre into bedlam. You hope for their sake it was a sellout. They didn’t reach capacity in Game 1.
Pageau beat Ryan McDonagh to the spot due to a mix up on coverage with partner Dan Girardi. Culpable on Pageau’s first of the day when he made a blind pass in the neutral zone which resulted in Pageau beating an unscreened Lundqvist from a very bad angle short side.
Before regulation ended, Chris Kreider dropped for Mats Zuccarello, who threw a shot pass in front to an open Mika Zibanejad, who got a backhand redirect on the puck. But the luck wasn’t there with the shot going over Anderson and the net. That meant overtime. If you were reaching for a oxygen mask, it wouldn’t have helped. You had that sinking feeling. How could a team recover from that? They didn’t.
Even in the first OT when they were able to manage 10 shots on Anderson with the Ottawa netminder nearly costing himself on a turnover only to be bailed out by Turris, the Rangers never gave you the sense they could win. J.T. Miller had the best chance but was stoned by Anderson, who outplayed Lundqvist despite allowing five goals on 48 shots. He made bigger saves. If Anderson outplays our goalie, they have no shot at a comeback.
It’s not even like he was great. Anderson gave up a couple of bad ones. Most notably, the five-hole shot to Skjei with a small screen on a great curl and drag by a player who saved the Rangers’ bacon on a three-on-one. Then scored on the other end a la Brian Leetch. Skjei is special. He was bad for the first four periods of the series, getting beaten badly by Mike Hoffman outside and in during a four-on-four resulting in a Marc Methot goal that made it 3-2. But Skjei stayed poised. You’ll have to ask the coach why the rookie and partner Brendan Smith played 10-11 shifts less than Nick Holden and Marc Staal.
It was Holden who got trapped on an awful Grabner cross-ice pass resulting in a turnover that led to Pageau cruising down on a two-on-one against Staal before picking high glove on a vulnerable Lundqvist for his fourth goal of the game at 2:54. It was just a really bad play. A very poor choice by Grabner, who had been very effective even finishing off the game’s first goal from Jesper Fast shorthanded. Once Holden was caught, Pageau had the hot hand and got it high and hard for a beauty of a double OT winner. Here’s how it looked and sounded courtesy CBC:
For the Rangers, it was a missed opportunity. A game in which they had 3-1, 4-2 and 5-3 leads resulted in one of the worst playoff losses this group has ever endured. For starters, they weren’t disciplined continuing to take foolish penalties. But the penalty kill came through killing off all four Ottawa power plays while scoring two shorthanded goals.
The first came from Grabner. Following the hustling Fast getting to a loose puck in the neutral zone, the speedy Swede came in two-on-one on Dion Phaneuf and passed across for a sweet Grabner finish at 4:16 of the first. But the Rangers continued to take penalties. After killing off Staal’s interference minor, they were forced to kill off two more on a ill advised Miller hook and a Chris Kreider elbow.
Unlike Game 1, the Sens power play was out of sync. The only quality chance was a howitzer from Karlsson off the inside of the goalpost from way out. They didn’t do anything else. Ottawa did their damage 4-on-4 scoring twice on three shots. Brutal if you’re the Rangers.
It was with the teams back to even strength that Girardi made a terrible puck decision. Thinking he had McDonagh on the other side, he made a low percentage pass behind his partner that allowed Pageau to come the other way. He took McDonagh deep and then fired a wrist shot that eluded Lundqvist short side high glove for an unassisted tally at 13:59 to tie the game. Girardi should’ve gotten the puck deep. It was a brutal mistake by a veteran player to make who’s otherwise been consistent this postseason. Naturally, everyone got on him for it. But what about the goalie? He has to come up with that save.
Despite lazy penalties and turnovers, the Rangers came out of the first tied 1-1 with a 9-6 shots edge. That’s how odd the game was. The second was exasperating for a while. They controlled play by a wide margin but were unable to beat Anderson in the first half of the period. He was making timely stops. That included the first Rangers power play which got five shots including a couple of good looks.
After it expired, Kreider made a strong individual effort to finally score his first of the postseason. On a keep by McDonagh with Mika Zibanejad in on the play, Kreider escaped with the puck from two Sens and then unleashed a bomb past a surprised Anderson for a 2-1 lead at 10:39. It was a great play by a very skilled player with the size and strength to impose his will. Kreider was dangerous throughout using his speed to create two break ins for near misses. He had Anderson on one with a forehand deke but lost control. He was going all game. A shame that it was wasted.
Stepan also got off the snide. Sure. He had an empty netter that sealed a first round win over Montreal. But he still was struggling to find his game, admitting that he’s stunk thus far. With Smith off for a slash, out came Stepan on a Nash lead for a two-on-one. With a lazy back check from former teammate Derick Brassard, Stepan moved in and went top shelf on Anderson for a shorthanded goal that made it 3-1 with 6:50 left in the second.
But just when things were going well, Ottawa pest Smith got nabbed for roughing. Earlier, he had plowed into Lundqvist during a Rangers power play with no call. This time, he went to the box setting up a four-on-four situation. The one concern was Ottawa’s team speed with two less skaters out. Sure enough, after taking a feed from rookie defenseman Ben Harpur, Hoffman blew past Skjei forcing Lundqvist into a tough kick save which went right to Methot, who beat Holden to the spot for his first coming at the 14-minute mark only 50 seconds after Stepan’s shorty. That cannot happen.
But after I was all over Skjei on Twitter, he responded by getting it back 1:51 later with his first of the game from McDonagh and Zibanejad. On the play, he was able to shoot through a Kreider screen and beat Anderson thru the wickets to restore a two-goal lead. Matching hi-sticking minors from Brassard and Rick Nash with 23 seconds left in the period resulted in another <gasp> four-on-four.
Once again, the Rangers let their guard down. At the start of the third, a defensive draw loss from Stepan led directly to an odd Mark Stone goal. A Phaneuf wide carom came back to an open Stone in the slot with both Staal and Holden scrambling. Nobody was in the right position allowing Stone to bury his first of the series (2nd of playoffs) past Lundqvist which made it 4-3 at 1:28 of the third. Ottawa rookie Fredrik Claesson drew the other helper on what can be called a lucky bounce. But one Stone took advantage of.
Then came Skjei’s spectacular moment. With partner Smith trapped and the Sens coming three-on-one, it looked like they would tie the game. Instead, Skjei patiently waited before blocking a pass across which allowed him to send Smith the other way. Smith led a four-on-two rush. After gaining the blue line, he passed across for Skjei, who showed so much poise curling and dragging before going five-hole on a stunned Anderson for a 5-3 lead with 14:50 remaining. A remarkable play by a very talented player.
For a long stretch of the third, it looked like the Rangers would win and even the series headed back home. They got plenty of praise from former Flyers goalie Brian Boucher on the NBC telecast. But just when things were looking promising, McDonagh went for a big hit leveling Phaneuf along the boards. He didn’t recover in time to pick up a wide open Pageau for his first redirect of a Smith shot past Lundqvist that cut the deficit to one with 3:19 left.
They still seemed in good shape after Grabner forced Anderson into a tough glove stop with 1:52 remaining. But the second consecutive icing proved costly. Hayes was unable to beat Pageau on a defensive draw. With Anderson pulled for an extra attacker, the Sens calmly worked the puck around. After a Karlsson wide shot, they again moved it around until Karlsson fed an open Turris for a one-timer that Pageau managed to get a piece of sending it by a stunned Lundqvist to tie the score at 5-5 with 62 seconds left.
It happened that quickly and astonishingly. Just like that, they had given up two Pageau brilliant deflection goals in a 2:17 span blowing a 5-3 lead. To their credit, the Rangers tried to get it back. Nash had his best shift applying pressure. Then came the final frantic seconds with Kreider making a smart play for Zuccarello, who made a nice touch pass in front for Zibanejad. The Ottawa crowd held its collective breath. But Zibanejad’s backhand redirect attempt sailed over the top allowing the buzzer to sound.
In the first overtime, an undisciplined Brassard went off for high-sticking Zibanejad. But the Rangers did absolutely nothing on the power play. It was abysmal. They had only one shot and basically helped the Senators kill off the penalty. Yet Boucher gave them credit. They hardly did anything other than take easy Rangers mistakes and send them down the ice.
By that point, Alain Vigneault came to the strange decision not to play rookie Pavel Buchnevich. He had one turnover in the first period. Somehow, he went from playing with Zibanejad and Kreider to the fourth line with Oscar Lindberg and a struggling Miller. Vigneault did change the lines with moderate success by sticking Mats Zuccarello with Zibanejad and Kreider. He also rewarded both Grabner and Fast moving them up to the third unit with Hayes, who had one of their best chances in sudden death. But his pointblank chance was gloved by Anderson.
Buchnevich never saw the ice in sudden death only receiving nine shifts in 5:46. Lindberg was unfairly punished winding up with a miniscule 5:07 in 11 shifts. Why? It didn’t make any sense. Vigneault shorted his own bench in overtime by going with 10 forwards. In a game where it went long, it was not a smart move. It’s not like the skilled Buchnevich and the gritty and smart Lindberg couldn’t have helped.
The Rangers also got lucky in the first OT when Stone had Lundqvist dead to rights. He managed a desperation pad save from down on his back and then could only thank Fast for getting a skate on a Stone shot ticketed for the back of the net. Instead, Fast’s block kept it alive leaving Stone only to look skyward and shake his head in total disbelief.
They also had a close call when Anderson had a brutal giveaway behind the net. With him out of position, Turris denied a Nash wraparound attempt. If he doesn’t, the Rangers win. Then, Anderson was ready for a Miller one-timer from the slot off a good Stepan pass from behind the net. Miller had to be frustrated. He came very close to finally ending his offensive struggles. One such chance saw him slam his stick in frustration during the second with the game still tied at one. He was moved up by Vigneault after responding.
What didn’t make a lot of sense was the mysterious disappearance of Nash, who’s been awfully quiet the first two games. Despite getting the lone assist on Stepan’s shorthanded goal and attempting seven shots, he wasn’t good enough. He’s totaled seven shots so far with 13 attempts but has no goals and hasn’t taken the puck as hard to the net like he did against the Canadiens. Nash must be better when the series shifts to MSG Tuesday.
The second overtime was short. When Grabner sent a low percentage backhand centering feed across to no one, it trapped not only Holden but Stepan and Fast leading to Pageau’s clutch money shot past Lundqvist high glove for the game-winner. It was a great shot. But one we’ve seen Lundqvist stop before on better shooters. Staal gave him the shot taking away the pass. That’s all you can ask for. Simply put, Pageau made the shot. Lundqvist didn’t stop it.
Now, it’s nitty gritty time. With an extra day off before Tuesday’s Game 2, it’s up to the Rangers to pick themselves up. They’ve been in this unenviable position before. They did it to the Caps in 2013 of the first round after losing the first two in Washington. That team was coached by John Tortorella. So, a lot of different personnel. But there are six players left from that team who were part of it. They include Lundqvist, McDonagh, Girardi, Staal, Stepan and Zuccarello. Kreider too even though he didn’t play every game. So, technically seven.
What they have to do is forget Game 2. They lost. End of story. The focus must be on just getting the next one. Protect home ice. Win Game 3 and it’s a series. If they take that approach, they can come back. But they must play better overall and give a total complete effort. There can’t be lapses from anyone.
I’ve seen plenty of blame going around. It’s the usual suspects Girardi, Staal and Holden. Last I checked, there were a lot more skaters who were part of this collapse. You had a lot of miscues with even Lundqvist not at his best. Funny. I haven’t seen anyone get on Zuccarello. He hasn’t distinguished himself in this series yet either.
Lucky for us, the Rangers are a team. They don’t panic. They stick together. We’ll see what they’re made of.
BONY 3 Stars:
3rd Star-Guy Boucher, Senators (for going with the hot hand playing Pageau more than an ineffective Brassard-outfoxed Vigneault, who hurt his team by shortening bench)
2nd Star-Brady Skjei, Rangers (2 goals-team best 4 in postseason including highlight reel goal that made it 5-3, 4 shots, +1 in 29 shifts-22:18)
1st Star-Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Senators (four goals including two redirects in final 3:19 of regulation along with a perfect GWG on a laser at 82:54 of overtime-magnificent performance, +3 in 28:44-37 shifts)
Notes: The teams combined for 82 shots with the Rangers holding a 48-34 advantage. Shot attempts favored the Blueshirts 83-79 with the Sens picking it up in crunch time. … Rangers had 43 hits compared to 38 for the Senators led by a feisty McDonagh, who finished with 11. A lot for him. All 18 skaters for Ottawa registered at least one with the gritty Methot leading them with five including a heavy one on Miller. In fact, only two skaters didn’t have a hit. Girardi and Zibanejad. … Key Stat: Giveaways NYR 15 (Miller 4) OTT 28 (Turris 4) and they won! Gave up two shorthanded goals too and they still won! Trailed by two three times and they still won! Unbelievable.
… If there was a key area Ottawa was better at, it was on face-offs where they dominated going 52-and-37 (58 percent). Brassard went 18-and-10 while Turris was 14-and-9. But Pageau won the critical one beating Hayes. He went 13-and-14 and dominated with a memorable performance. Zibanejad had a good day in the circle going 16-and-11 against his former team while recording two assists. He’s been fine. Sadly, Lindberg was the Rangers’ second best winning 4-of-6 before his benching. On a day where Stepan got brutalized losing 17-of-25 with Hayes a brutal 8-and-15. … The Rangers blocked 24 shots with the tandem of McDonagh and Girardi each having five, including four from number 5 in sudden death. At least one prevented a sure goal. The Sens blocked 19 led by Phaneuf’s five.
… In other playoff action, the Caps are doing their usual fold job against the Pens losing 5-2 as time winds down. Braden Holtby should change his last name to Holteby. That’s how bad he’s been. Sidney Crosby is dominating the series so far and Marc-Andre Fleury has turned back the clock to 2009. He’s looking like a Conn Smythe candidate. It’s gonna be 2-0 Pens headed back to Pittsburgh.
… In other hockey related news, the Devils had the ping pong balls fall their way for a change winning the NHL Draft Lottery. They moved up all the way to 1 and now will decide between Nico Hischier and Nolan Patrick. If I were them, I’d take Hischier. He looks like he’ll be a big scorer. Exactly what the Devs need. The Flyers are picking second followed by the Stars with the laughable Avalanche dropping all the way to four. Good. It serves them right.