Game #36: Ba Humbug, Hayes toasts Rangers as AV Flyers ruin Christmas

What happens when you play well for two periods, but don’t finish the job? The Rangers learned the hard way during last night’s exasperating 5-1 loss at the Flyers.

A game they easily could’ve won got away in dizzying fashion. They went from leading a well played game 1-0 on a Jesper Fast shorthanded goal to Travis Sanheim scoring with 1.7 seconds left in the second period to beat an otherwise brilliant Henrik Lundqvist.

Up to that point, he was outdueling young Flyers netminder Carter Hart. Then Sanheim took a shot that deflected both off Mika Zibanejad and Lundqvist’s goal stick to change the momentum. The Rangers were that close to getting out of the second with a 1-0 lead. They were the better team.

Then the third period came. Let’s just say it was one to forget. They had many chances to beat Hart more than once, but couldn’t. Pavel Buchnevich had another one of those games where you wonder what will it take for him to score goals consistently. He had several point blank opportunities throughout and could only look skyward following a Hart glove theft on one such chance.

There also were close calls for Artemi Panarin, Zibanejad (goalpost) and Brady Skjei. But Hart didn’t cooperate. The Zibanejad post came with his team trailing by one with over seven minutes left in the third. Kevin Hayes had put the Flyers up by converting a good Joel Farabee cross ice pass by picking high glove on Lundqvist. An area most shooters target against the veteran goalie.

It was the first game for Hayes against his former team that traded him to Winnipeg before last trade deadline in a deal that netted Brendan Lemieux with a first round pick they flipped back to the Jets with Neal Pionk for Jacob Trouba. Winnipeg wound up selecting defenseman Ville Heinola.

The game was also former coach Alain Vigneault’s first versus the team he guided to a Stanley Cup appearance and Presidents Trophy. So, it was very special for both. Hayes really shined in this one for his new team. After a slow start, the two-way center is finding his game under the coach he developed well under in the Big Apple. He wasn’t only a huge factor in scoring twice on his former teammate to highlight a Flyers four-goal third period. But he also was physical landing a clean hit on Panarin.

Hayes had something to prove. The simple fact is that even though the Flyers doled out a lot of money by paying him over $7 million a year on the cap, he is a good player, who Vigneault knows he can lean on in every situation. That includes five-on-five, power play and penalty kill where he killed valuable time on another dreadful Rangers power play by skating around with the puck shorthanded to cheers from the Flyers crowd.

In a weird game where you couldn’t find one bad penalty call where the teams were in the box a lot, the Rangers penalty kill excelled throughout the first 40 minutes. In fact, two straight Philly power plays totaled zero shots to draw jeers from a crowd that boos Santa. The Rangers had their own issues on the man-advantage. They again took the collar for the game and are 0 for their last 16. Even when they set up something good such as Zibanejad for a one-timer, it’s eaten up by Hart. Then you even had Panarin misfiring from within 20 feet what usually is money. Plus the Buchnevich blanks.

You get the picture. Once again, they blew a 5-on-3 at a key point. When you don’t score on those, it’s usually bad news. Insert former WWE superstar Wade Barrett aka Stu Bennett on NWA Powerrr. There was no good news to report. Only “Bad News.”

So, how did a goalie duel with both Lundqvist and Hart go from the Rangers leading 1-0 to a total implosion in the final half of the third period? Quite simply, they got careless. After Sanheim found enough room to walk out and beat Lundqvist at 19:58 of the second for the first of two, things unraveled. It didn’t happen right away.

That’s the irritating part. This game was there for the taking. Even if you don’t believe this team is making the playoffs like me, a win in regulation would’ve meant two points gained on a team they trail for the wildcard. The Flyers came in seven up on the Blueshirts. Instead of losing, they took the first meeting with a superb third to go nine up at the holiday break. A four point swing.

There were a lot of frustrated Ranger fans on Twitter. I was one of them. Following Hayes going around Skjei like he was a used traffic cone before owning Lundqvist with a great backhand, forehand finish around his right leg pad, I decided I had enough. I went to the gym. Yes. I had no idea the Flyers added a fifth goal until I got home and showered. I thought I was hearing things. Wow. It made me glad I left.

Here is a interesting piece in a Tweet that was noted by Chris Kreider on what went wrong in that period. He’s right on about the breakdowns.

It’s interesting to see him say that under AV, who emphasizes an aggressive system based on speed, skating and transition, that he feels when they were coached by him, they had a tighter structure. It sounds like an indictment of David Quinn and his coaching staff. The only holdover from Vigneault’s bench is Lindy Ruff. The former Buffalo and Dallas head coach who gets blamed for everything. Does he get any credit for the improved penalty kill that is tied for first with the Hurricanes with eight shorthanded goals?

When people point fingers at the defense, they’re half right. Yes. The D does have breakdowns from time to time. So do the Flyers. The difference was Hart covered for their mistakes. Despite a strong game, Lundqvist couldn’t sustain it. When his team needed a big save, he let Hayes beat him top shelf on an unscreened shot. It was a good shot, but not impossible to stop. On the game-winner, all three forwards got trapped. Buchnevich was too late and Adam Fox couldn’t prevent the pass from getting across.

The Flyers third goal was a Sanheim follow up with Lundqvist way out of his net due to a point blank stop on a jail break. Then he fell to the ice and couldn’t recover in time for Sanheim’s shot into an open net. This is becoming a problem for Hank. He flops to the ice when things fall apart and takes himself out of position. Despite some quality saves including a great one to deny Morgan Frost on a two-on-one, and a huge stop on Sean Couturier, he has moments where his age shows. Him starting the back-to-back wasn’t an issue. He had plenty left after an easy win over the Ducks.

I’m not faulting the goaltending here. The poor coverage that included way too many gaps and not enough checking, really cost this team any shot of winning last night. It was abominable. This is how this team is. When they start taking high risks as Kreider mentioned, that’s when they get in trouble. He probably can’t wait to be free from this mess. Realistically speaking, he only has two months left as a Ranger. Unless things drastically change, the successful former ’09 first round pick will be gone. It’s sad.

Things can change so quickly. One minute, you’re up. The next, you’re down. That’s what the Blueshirts have become. They had their window and missed it. Glen Sather swung for the fences a couple of times with Martin St. Louis and Keith Yandle. 2015 hurt more in my opinion. To go out the way they did on Garden ice was a disgrace. We saw it in Game Five. I knew they’d go into Tampa and win. Then, the disastrous Game Seven. Shutout again at home. The first ever time in franchise history the Rangers lost a home Game 7. Not a single goal scored in the final six home periods of that bizarre series.

It’s easy to wonder if Mats Zuccarello could’ve been the difference that Spring. But with all the D wounded, I’m not sure they would’ve had enough left to beat the Blackhawks. It would’ve been winnable. And probably a very exciting series. We’ll never know. Chicago won its third Cup of the decade. Even with how brutal they are now, they’re the team of the decade.

So, what else is there to say? Nothing. Lias Andersson is gone. And the organization thinks they can make the playoffs. I don’t see how. The Blue Jackets have suddenly reeled off six in a row. No Panarin. No Matt Duchene. No Sergei Bobrovsky. No Ryan Dzingel. And Oliver Bjorkstrand is out for a month. No problem for John Tortorella. They’ve turned their season around.

Playoffs? They are too soft. There’s too much inconsistency. This is a team that gives up too many high danger chances. I’m not a chart nerd either. I just watch. The system isn’t good enough. That’s on Quinn. He’s the man in charge. They are young. I get it. But you’d like to see improvement defensively and with backchecking and players coming back hard by taking the body. Not puck watching.

Ryan Lindgren is the most physical defenseman they have. He should get a look on the top pair in place of Skjei, who continues to get caught out of position so frequently, it’s like watching Buchnevich fail on another scoring opportunity. Jacob Trouba has to do too much. When he makes a mistake like he did on one of the goals against in the third, it’s really glaring. But he plays hard nosed and is physical as well as solid offensively.

Fox looks to have hit a wall. His offense has disappeared. Maybe the three day break will help. Tony DeAngelo consistently creates offense. That’s why he paces the team in D scoring. He had a nice move off a face-off win to force a Hart stop and then another on a Buchnevich backhand in tight.

Marc Staal isn’t creating much because that’s not his job. He knows his limitations and doesn’t take many dangerous risks. He’s been fine since Libor Hajek went down. Skjei is contributing offensively. He could’ve had two goals on Monday night. However, his struggles defensively hurt. For what he makes, it’s mind numbing. Would he look different in a more structured system under a different coach? Fans love to bash players. But look at the difference Dave Tippett is making in Edmonton. Ditto for Rick Tocchet with Arizona.

More people are beginning to question if Quinn is the right guy. He barely used his fourth line as I predicted in the third. Why would he? The fourth line has been a team flaw since Brian Boyle departed. Once he did, the Rangers never seriously challenged again. Funny how that works. Remember, it was his hard forecheck and pass to Dominic Moore for the series clincher versus the pesky Canadiens in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Final. Madison Square Garden rocked that night. Best game I ever attended.

You have to have four lines you can roll. Especially in a back-to-back situation. Why isn’t Tim Gettinger or Steven Fogarty here? I question the organization thinking. What’s the goal?

Kaapo Kakko again sat out due to being nicked up from that shot block. He did play one game before sitting out the last two. Maybe the time off will do him some good. He hasn’t looked right the entire month. He is only 18.

What happens on Friday when they return to action? I don’t know. I’ll be as locked in on the World Junior Championship as I can be. Team USA has a great chance to challenge for the gold medal. K’Andre Miller and Zac Jones are part of the team’s blueline. I’ll be covering it on Hockey Prospects. It all starts up on Thursday the 26th.

Kudos to Zibanejad for getting some players together to take a cool photo in tribute to Flyers forward Oskar Lindblom. He’s out for the season battling Ewing’s sarcoma. A form of bone cancer. It’s hard to believe. We are all #OskarStrong!

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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