Even the wins are ugly

By show of hands, how many people stayed up late to watch the game Thursday night in San Jose? Not everyone can due to their schedule. But quite a few including me waited for the late 10:37 PM puck drop and got less sleep.

At least the Rangers managed to win the final game of a ugly four-game road trip to salvage two points with a ugly 6-5 victory over the Sharks. It doesn’t matter where they are in the standings. As it relates to the playoff race, they stand 25-20-5 with 55 points just on the outside looking in at second wildcard Philadelphia.

By now, we know that there’s so much parity in the Metropolitan Division that just a single win can move you up even if you’ve been losing consistently. The Flyers put together a good stretch to reach third in the division with 56 points but a loss in regulation combined with victories by the Blue Jackets and Penguins put them fifth in the Metro behind the slumping Devils and back into the second wildcard. Two total points separate second place from seventh with the Rangers and Islanders each having 55 points through 50 games at the All-Star break. The Islanders won in Vegas 2-1 hanging on to deal the Golden Knights only their third home loss.

What does it all mean? Basically, any of the remaining seven teams including the Hurricanes, who got to 52 with a badly needed victory, can can finish anywhere in the division. That’s assuming the Capitals continue to play well. They’re in first place with 63 points. Six up on Columbus and Pittsburgh. Seven on the Devils and Flyers. Eight ahead of the Rangers and Islanders and 11 clear of the Canes.

The Metro is a competitive division not unlike the Central out West where six total points separate first place Winnipeg from first wildcard Dallas. The second wildcard is up for grabs with the Sharks at 59 points leading a variety of contenders ranging from the Flames, Avalanche, Kings, Wild and Ducks with the Blackhawks lurking behind. Discounting the awful Atlantic Division in the East where the Lightning, Bruins and Maple Leafs appear locked in, the other three divisions are very competitive. A lot can happen between next Tuesday, January 30 when the season resumes and its conclusion in April.

When it comes down to it, the Rangers are mediocre. They continue to make mistakes even in wins like last night. Similar to how they outshot and outplayed Anaheim in a 6-3 loss, they withstood some hideous errors to hold off San Jose for a badly needed win. And that’s the problem.

The first period was similar to the other night. In his return, Kevin Hayes scored a nice goal on a rare slap shot from J.T. Miller to put the Rangers up early. But the Sharks came right back with two consecutive goals from Barclay Goodrow and Logan Couture to steer in front. Jesper Fast finished off a Michael Grabner feed in front to end a long goal drought that tied it up before the period ended. It was a rare assist for Grabner, whose Cy Young campaign is now 21-5.

The crazy aspect is that for a second straight game, they outshot their opponent in the first period (12-7). But only were tied due to more defensive breakdowns. Watching Brendan Smith try to defend has become comical. On one San Jose goal, he stopped skating due to a missed interference call that knocked down Tony DeAngelo. In the process, he lost his man in front.

The Rangers offense was reignited by Hayes’ return. He was really strong in all facets. Centering a second line with a rejuvenated Miller and Mats Zuccarello, they dominated. Hayes also made a nice defensive play before setting up captain Ryan McDonagh for his long overdue first goal of the season. He would score again on the power play from Pavel Buchnevich to put the Blueshirts ahead for good. It was a big night for the captain, who also defended well.

In hockey, momentum is a strange thing. The Sharks had it when Couture notched his second of the game to lead 3-2. But lost it on two McDonagh goals followed by a shorthanded goal from Brady Skjei to fall behind 5-3 after two periods.

Anyone who’s a fan of this team knew the game wasn’t over. Not the way the Rangers play. They went into a cocoon in the third. The prevent defense never works. It’s the same for football. They backed off. So when Marc-Edouard Vlasic cut it to 5-4, it wasn’t shocking. Maybe the most surprising aspect was the Rangers got away with it. Ondrej Pavelec, who started poorly, made a few gigantic saves including a point blank robbery. He didn’t take any credit for the one-goal win.

Five wasn’t enough. A great play by Zuccarello where he went around the net and found Miller open for a big goal with 1:50 left in regulation actually proved to be the game-winner. Miller redeemed himself with a goal and two assists following his benching. It was a good response.

In typical Ranger fashion, the game wasn’t over. Tomas Hertl was credited with his 14th when his shot banked perfectly off Peter Holland by Pavelec with less than 50 seconds remaining.

The Rangers exhaled when the buzzer sounded. So, they got a rare road victory. Only their eighth in 22 games away from MSG. The 8-12-2 record is indicative of a team that struggles on the road unlike past years. With still 19 left compared to 13 at home, it’s going to be a challenge.

Which leaves us with the same conclusion. This team isn’t good enough to contend. They must sell by February 26. If they don’t, they’re fooling themselves. Don’t let the parity fool you.

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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