Rangers Miserable Road Tour Almost Complete


Rick Nash did his part scoring twice but the Rangers continue to struggle on the road. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy NY Daily News. 

After losing to the Avalanche and Kings with the latter leaving a all too familiar bad taste, the Rangers continued their miserable road tour last night with a third straight loss. This time, shots weren’t a problem. They had over 40 but Henrik Lundqvist was off from the beginning. It resulted in a ugly 6-3 defeat to the Ducks.

While the effort was better than the incomplete Groundhog Day at Staples Center, they couldn’t stop Anaheim from scoring. They took advantage of every mistake while also catching Lundqvist on a rare off night. He was chased for three goals on seven shots before Ondrej Pavelec relieved him before the end of the first period. Excuse Lundqvist. He’s played a lot of hockey.

Maybe we should’ve seen it coming. It was his 41st start of the season. He’s appeared in 42 of the Rangers’ 49 games. Occasionally, the 35-year old’s workload can be overwhelming. A look at how the team plays defensively is reason enough for him to finally cave in.

The crazy part is the Rangers actually played a good first period. They controlled much of the action outshooting the Ducks 18-8 and outchancing them. It didn’t matter. They play so loose that fundamental mistakes are common. Four led to Ducks goals. A wide shot allowed Anaheim to get a odd man rush. On it, Ryan McDonagh took the pass away giving Lundqvist a clear path shot. He was unable to stop J.T. Brown from the circle. He went high glove for the game’s first goal.

Rick Nash scored the first of two when he beat John Gibson in front for a power play goal. But before you could breathe, another breakdown allowed Anaheim to regain the lead when Corey Perry got behind Nick Holden and beat Lundqvist for a power play goal. It wasn’t the best shot. His change up went through Lundqvist. A save he normally comes up with. It was obvious that he didn’t have it.

After Nash got his second of the period to tie it at two, then came another Ducks reply. Some more careless defense resulted in Andrew Cogliano using Brady Skjei as a screen to beat Lundqvist short side top. He was off his angle and looked visibly frustrated. At that point, Alain Vigneault went to Pavelec. In hindsight, maybe he would’ve been better off starting him. But it’s a desperate situation. Especially when they keep losing while teams around them for the most part, don’t take advantage.

It took this long for the Pens to leapfrog them for the second wildcard. They posted a win against Carolina for points 54 and 55. Two more than the Blueshirts and confusing Islanders. The Flyers won again and are now up to third in the Metro Division with 56 points. A identical amount to the fading Devils, who remain second despite their issues and the Boston Screw Job (see Hasan’s post). The puzzling Blue Jackets are in the first wildcard with 55 points. They’ve played two fewer games than Pittsburgh, who have four more ROW. Got all that?

Late in the first on a power play, a huge mistake by J.T. Miller proved costly. Adam Henrique scored a shorthanded goal with 1:22 left. The former Devil and noted Ranger killer did it again. Miller made a absolutely awful play. While in the neutral zone, he tried a back pass to no one except for the dangerous Ryan Getzlaf. If I didn’t know any better, he thought the Ducks captain was on his side. It was brutal. Getzlaf got the puck to Henrique for a one-on-one with Pavelec. Henrique patiently outwaited Pavelec tucking in a forehand for what proved to be the game-deciding goal.

I knew Miller would be benched. It was such a boneheaded play by a player who’s in his sixth year already. It’s his fourth full season. Still just 24 (turns 25 on 3/14), it’s no excuse. Simply put, he should know better. After a breakthrough ‘16-17 in which he matched  career best in goals (22) and established new career highs in assists (34) and points (56), he’s been a enigma much like the team. He commits too many turnovers. The problem is he doesn’t shoot the puck enough and overpasses. That style is indicative of how the Rangers play. Refusing to take open shots. Too many passes can result in sloppy turnovers which fuel the opposition’s transition. There’s a reason this team ranks dead last in Corsi shot differential.

Miller’s miscue drew the ire of Vigneault. A player who’s always been jerked around by the much maligned coach whose time could be running out, he never took another shift. That’s less than five minutes of ice-time for what was their second center minus Kevin Hayes. In making a example out of Miller, Vigneault cut down his forwards to 11 for the remaining two periods. If that wasn’t enough, for reasons only known to him, he also sat Jimmy Vesey for almost the entire third except for a power play. The second-year forward who brings a strong work ethic got the Pavel Buchnevich treatment. Why? I have no clue. But basically cutting down to 10 forwards in a game you needed made no sense.

That’s Vigneault. A coach who plays favorites. Even though he’s coached differently by making a prime example of Brendan Smith for his inconsistent play and shortened the bench for third periods by double shifting his top players, this was mind numbing. When Peter Holland is getting major minutes along with David Desharnais as your other center options aside from Mika Zibanejad, who had a good night, it is not complementary.

I am not understanding how Michael Grabner wound up with less ice-time than Holland. Grabner is only their top goalscorer. He scored the team’s second shorthanded goal of the year when he took a Zibanejad pass and beat Gibson for his 21st. He has been the team’s best skater. It’s not even close. Nobody puts out more effort each shift than the two-way dependable, speedy Austrian who is going to make it a hard decision for GM Jeff Gorton at the February 26 trade deadline. I don’t see why he continues to be underutilized on the fourth line. How is he not a top nine forward? With Hayes and Chris Kreider out, it’s a joke. He is one of the few finishers they got. With Nash getting it together with a third two-goal game this month raising his total to 15, he and Grabner are the only wingers who think shot. Zibanejad has 14 in 40 games as the number one center. He also shoots the puck.

Most of their players are playmakers. That includes the gifted Buchnevich, who’s definitely picked it up with five points (2-3-5) over his last five games. Not coincidentally, it’s come with the 22-year old Russian back on the top line with Zibanejad, who he has chemistry with. He is a superb skater who likes to hold onto the puck and use his speed to find open ice. As evidenced by his 13 goals and 18 assists, he is more passer than shooter. His offensive skill makes him a good power play threat where he gets plenty of time on the top unit. While much has been made of his even strength time, Buchnevich is getting close to 15 minutes on average while continuing to improve.

I wish I could understand Vigneault’s mishandling of Vesey. While not as talented, the former Harvard star is a north/south player who goes to the dirty areas in front of the net. He is stronger than Buchnevich and is willing to battle players. Take the chaos that ensued with the Kings. He was right in the middle of it. The 10 goals and seven helpers don’t tell the whole story. He hasn’t had a defined role. It’s hard for a young player to develop properly when they’re bounced around. He can’t be on the fourth line or benched with two of the club’s top nine out. It’s inexplicable.

That is the season in a nutshell. One that’s angered a loyal fan base who don’t like the way this roster plays. Very few players are consistent including leading scorer Mats Zuccarello. A terrific Blueshirt who never backs down having led the team in scoring two years running. But his eight goals at this juncture aren’t enough. The 27 assists and 35 points are right in line with what he’s produced. It’s just that he’s become one dimensional. If he thought shot more, it would help change the mentality. A locker room leader, he is signed through 2019. If they continue to go in the wrong direction, the Rangers could consider trading him. Just don’t expect it until the summer at the soonest. Ditto McDonagh, who will command a lot on the open market when his deal expires the following year.

Even though they didn’t play as badly as the final score indicated, the Rangers did enough to lose. In the past, they were the opposite. A team who found a way. But a more flawed roster minus key players including Kevin Shattenkirk is finding it hard to put together consistent efforts.

On most nights, it’s the grinders who are noticeable. Guys like Paul Carey, Jesper Fast and Marc Staal. Along with a few notable exceptions, these are the skaters who bring it. You know what you’re going to get from Lundqvist. McDonagh certainly lays it out there too even though he’s definitely not the same player before the injuries. Brady Skjei remains a work in progress who hasn’t taken that next step. Why is that when there are there are three experienced NHL coaches on the bench?

These lingering questions along with the lineup tinkering now out of necessity make it seem like a easy decision. The organization must be sellers next month. Even if that means asking Nash to make a list of teams he’d accept a trade to. The same for Nick Holden, who remains miscast on the top pair. As for Grabner, I would love to keep him. But they’d be crazy not to explore the market. He can always come back if he likes playing here. But will it be a different coaching staff by July? Only time shall tell. Desharnais can also fetch something back even if it’s a late round pick.

With 2017 first round picks Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil developing in Hartford along with Ryan Graves and Neal Pionk, the future is in focus. If they fall out of the race, then maybe you give one of those kids a look. They should remain patient until then.

Encouraging has been the improvement from Tony DeAngelo. He recorded his second assist since returning on Tuesday. Now receiving around 16 minutes including power play time, he’s looked more comfortable skating the puck out and moving it. His defense also has been solid thus far. An area that will be essential to his development. When Gorton dealt Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta at last year’s NHL Draft for DeAngelo and the seventh overall pick which became Andersson, it was with the future in mind.

Keeping perspective during this tough time as a fan is key. Losses like yesterday and Sunday serve as a reminder. They’re not good. Just like many around them. It’s not about this year.

When they visit San Jose tomorrow, they can go 0-for-4 before the All-Star break. As ugly as it would be, is it really the worst thing? Not when the writing is on the wall and has been for a while.


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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