Game #71: Playing out the string isn’t fun as Rangers Flame out in Calgary

I’ll be honest. As the season winds down, it gets harder and harder to watch these games. The Rangers are a very bad team since trading Mats Zuccarello and Kevin Hayes. They compete hard, but it isn’t always smart. So, you get what you see. A team that’s won only once since the trade deadline.

In what amounted to a total Flameout, they were no match for the Flames last night. In falling to 1-4-4 since two of their best players were traded plus Adam McQuaid, they were taken apart by Matthew Tkachuk in a 5-1 loss at Calgary.

Tkachuk is the kind of gritty, skilled and tough young power forward the Rangers lack. He’s impossible to move in front of the net, has great hands, and makes teammates better. It’s no surprise that the third-year forward had a field day against a weak defense. The older son of USA Hockey Hall of Famer Keith Tkachuk put up five points in the Calgary victory. He posted two goals and three assists with a plus-five rating in a dominant performance by the budding 21-year old star.

There wasn’t a huge discrepancy in shots. For the game, the Flames finished with 32 shots while the Rangers had 25. It was what Calgary was able to do against our team on the goals that showed the large disparity in talent. They have some of the game’s brightest stars that include 92-point man Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Tkachuk, Elias Lindholm and my Norris pick Mark Giordano. Top tier talent can cover up question marks like the two goalies, David Rittich and veteran Mike Smith. I’m curious to see if they can win in the Spring despite inconsistent netminding.

What’s ironic is that for a game I hardly was able to tune into due to visiting my Mom for a nice dinner, as soon as I got in the car for the drive home, I correctly guessed that the score was 3-1 Flames in the second period. I don’t know how. Maybe it was just intuition. Calgary is a good home team and are fighting with the Sharks for the West’s top seed. The Rangers are playing out the string. There a huge contrast.

I know they’re not mailing in these games. But when you have a even younger team that has issues scoring and defending, it makes life very difficult on both Henrik Lundqvist and Alexandar Georgiev. They can only do so much. To their credit, they both entered yesterday with around .909 save percentages despite the unfair high goals-against-average. Their jobs aren’t easy right now. Given how well the mature 22-year old Georgiev handles things, it would be a mistake to toss him aside and throw Russian goalie prospect Igor Shestyorkin to the wolves next season. He could suffer from culture shock after playing for such a good KHL team.

There wasn’t much Georgiev could do on most of the Calgary goals. Judging from the highlights, there were some key mistakes and blown coverages by the Blueshirts. On the game’s first goal scored by Gaudreau when he got behind the defense to convert a breakaway for his 34th goal, it was as simple as Neal Pionk getting caught on a pinch and being unable to recover. A great Tkachuk flip pass from in front of his own net found Gaudreau to spring him. With Pionk scrambling to catch up, the supremely skilled Gaudreau went to the nifty inside out backhand, forehand deke to undress Georgiev for a 1-0 Calgary lead at the 10-minute mark.

Interestingly, Pionk had a good response 70 seconds later when he scored his first goal since Dec. 22 before Christmas. He went 30 games since his last goal. During a four-on-four with both Gaudreau and Brendan Smith off for matching slashing minors, Pionk jumped up into the rush taking a perfect cross ice feed from Ryan Strome to blow a laser past Rittich for his sixth. It was a nice play by Strome, who got into the Calgary zone and waited before finding an open Pionk for the goal.

The second period didn’t see many total shots. In fact, after getting outshot 13-6, the Rangers held a 9-5 edge. The difference being that the Flames scored on two of their first three shots. The first goal was a Tkachuk special. Like his Dad, he parked himself in front of Georgiev with nobody near him. That resulted in a Giordano shot being redirected by Tkachuk for an easy goal. Tony DeAngelo was the closest player. You can’t let a player with Tkachuk’s grit and skill skate to a wide open spot and not expect a bad result.

Less than two minutes later, Tkachuk’s fingerprints were all over the third goal scored by Garnet Hathaway. On it, he received the puck from Derek Ryan behind the net, then came out and centered for a Hathaway deflection for a 3-1 lead. This one saw Filip Chytil lose his man with both Brady Skjei and Kevin Shattenkirk occupied. A simple breakdown by a rookie forward. He wasn’t alone.

In the third, Michael Frolik had all day to pick up his own rebound and beat a sprawled Georgiev for a 4-1 lead. Lias Andersson didn’t pick him up. It was a rough night for Andersson, who went a minus-three in the game with countryman Jesper Fast. Andersson had no shots on goal in 10:31 of action.

With already four points, Tkachuk closed the night by getting his career high 32nd from Mikael Backlund. It was another play down low that saw the crafty Backlund pass for a wide open Tkachuk for a easy put away past Georgiev. The five points give him 10 over the last three games. He went for a hat trick and assist in a win over Vegas, while scoring a goal against the Devils in between. That gives him six goals and four helpers during Calgary’s three-game winning streak.

For the Rangers, they don’t have much time to think about it. To conclude the four-game road trip, they visit desperate Minnesota later. The Wild sit three points out of the second wildcard held by the amazing Coyotes. They’ll be desperate to get a win tonight.

I don’t know how many games this roster will win down the stretch. They struggle offensively. Only once have they topped two goals in the nine games since the deadline. The 4-2 come from behind home win over the Binghamton Devils. The power play has been dreadful. Since the departure of Hayes and Zuccarello, they’re 1-for-27 in the nine games. The one coming from Pavel Buchnevich on Wednesday at Vancouver to break a shutout.

Most alarming, the offense from top stars Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider have leveled off. Zibanejad has three points (1-2-3) since Zuccarello was dealt. Kreider has two assists over that span. One lousy goal from your two top scorers in nine games isn’t going to get it done.

What’s more? Ryan Strome (3-3-6) and Vladislav Namestnikov (2-3-5) have been more productive. So have the Odd Couple of Buchnevich (4 goals) and Brendan Lemieux (2-3-5 with 31 PIM). Jimmy Vesey has no points in the last eight following three consecutive two-point games while filling in for Zuccarello prior to the trade on the top line. Chytil has just one helper and remains without a goal since 2/6.

Basically, the Rangers are a very boring team right now. They can’t score enough goals and have too many defensive breakdowns. If they fail to sign a star free agent like Artemi Panarin or Jeff Skinner this summer, they have a chance to be even worse next year. They could be in the mix for Alexis Lafreniere. That would be helpful for the long-term more than wasting a lot of money on a very good offensive player that’ll enter his 30’s by the time the team gets good again.

With a unpredictable situation in net due to the Lundqvist dark shadow lurking as 2021 draws nearer, the organization will be faced with a very hard decision in two years. Do they re-sign an aging Lundqvist or move on with possible replacement Shestyorkin or Georgiev if he’s still around? Lundqvist will be 39 by then.

You don’t want an Eli Manning situation. As great as he’s been, the truth is the franchise leader in wins and shutouts isn’t the same goalie. He can’t carry an inferior team that’s probably at least two years away from competing for the playoffs. Until the offense and defense improve via some of the prospects they have, it’s a long climb back.

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 Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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