A telling quote from Strome, important off-season is ahead for Blueshirts

There are plenty of building blocks for the Rangers who have a bright future led by Adam Fox. The maturity of young players such as Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafreniere will help determine if they can reach the postseason next year. AP Photo by Rangers via Getty Images

Following last night’s 3-0 shutout loss to the Islanders, Ryan Strome was made available to the media in the postgame. He had an interesting assessment on why the Rangers struggled to win games against their Long Island rivals.

“They are built to have a good playoff run, and it’s a good lesson for us. “Anytime we play these games, it shows what it takes, I think, moving forward. I don’t think we need to play like these guys, but I think there’s a lot of good attributes they have that we can learn from.”

Strome added that the Islanders take away the middle and don’t beat themselves. Something coach David Quinn lamented in his press conference. While both he and Strome noted that it wasn’t as bad as Thursday’s no show at home, one point that hit home was the team’s struggles with getting pucks out of their zone.

The Islanders were harder on the puck and forced the Rangers into some mistakes that created long shifts. One such instance saw rookie Tarmo Reunanen pinned in his end for two minutes. Even though they didn’t score, such extended play wears on an opponent. Especially when they’re trying to come back. The Isles’ Identity Line had good sustained pressure due to their physicality. One shift led to Cal Clutterbuck hitting the goalpost.

It’s that attention to detail for Barry Trotz’s club which make them hard to play against. Especially for a team with the speed and skill of the Rangers, who rely too much on the East/West style. While it’s fun to watch when it works, hard nosed defensive teams like the Islanders make life difficult. They take away the passing lanes and minimize the stretch passes that lead to odd-man rushes and breakaways. Something the Blueshirts didn’t have much of. Even Mika Zibanejad was caught from behind by Nick Leddy, who lifted his stick to negate a chance.

Like a broken record, Quinn has preached playing a more simple game against the Isles. That means chipping pucks in and recovering them. Something Strome pointed out. Playing more of a North/South style is less risky. It can lead to more forecheck pressure and force opponents to play in their end. The lack of forecheck in the two games was their own doing. Only the fourth line was willing to do what it took. An indictment on the top six that features Artemi Panarin, who had no shots on goal in the two losses. He found little operating room and was ineffective.

It should be noted that Zibanejad had a team high seven shots on Semyon Varlamov last night. So, he did get some opportunities unlike previous match-ups. But there was no finish. One goal and two assists in the eight-game season series was hardly enough from the 28-year old top center. In the eight games, he registered 30 shots with only an empty net goal. While he had a shooting percentage of 30.4 against the Flyers (7 goals on 23 shots), Zibanejad wound up with a 3.3 against the Islanders.

Even Panarin found it tough to be consistent. He didn’t miss any games versus the Rangers’ Kryptonite. In eight matches, the Bread Man went 2-2-4 and a minus-six versus the Islanders. Disappointing production for an elite player who usually is able to make a difference. This wasn’t last year when he made a diving pass back for a great Zibanejad overtime winner at Nassau Coliseum which closed the gap for the Rangers prior to the stoppage. In three games versus the same opponent last season, Panarin dominated with three goals and five assists. Zibanejad went 2-3-5 in four meetings. What a difference a year makes.

It’s not easy to understand what changed. At one point, the Rangers were 2-2 in the first four head-to-head meetings this year. However, they proceeded to drop the last four including a crushing overtime loss. Over the final four games of the season series, they were outscored 16-3. In all eight games, the team that scored first won. Maybe the most mind numbing number is how many total goals the Rangers got in the six losses. That would be a grand sum of three. They were outscored 22-5 and shutout four times. All by Varlamov, who’s done most of his damage against them. He leads the league with seven shutouts.

The sad part is had they played better in any of the final three meetings, maybe the Blueshirts are very much alive for the postseason. Instead, they could be eliminated completely on Monday. Either a point from Boston or any kind of loss to Washington will officially end the season. It’ll be a long summer. One the key players will be left to wonder about.

How can they get better? That’s a tough question for GM Jeff Gorton and Team President John Davidson. Are they looking to make an adjustment to the roster that could finally get them back in the playoffs for the first time since ’16-17? If not and they stay the course, are they banking too much on the young players improving enough to get through the grind of a likely return to an 82-game schedule?

We know the leadership must be better. If not, the rebuild will be at a crossroads. The Letter was sent out three years ago. While the organization subtracted key parts of a successful roster that advanced to a Stanley Cup Final and was within a period of returning, they did a good job restocking the farm system. It’s Adam Fox, Ryan Lindgren, Alexis Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko, Igor Shesterkin, Vitaly Kravtsov and Filip Chytil who are very much the keys to the future. K’Andre Miller and Zac Jones will be part of that core which should include Nils Lundkvist. Will Brett Howden still be here along with newcomer Morgan Barron? What about Libor Hajek and Tarmo Reunanen? Chytil could be a potential trade candidate.

The bottom line is there are many questions that’ll get answered this off-season. The Rangers can’t be on the outside looking in next year. They have to take the next big step. The postseason becomes a necessity. If Quinn is returning, there will be a lot more pressure. That goes for management too. It’s up to them to make the right decisions.

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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