Embarrassing blowout loss to Blues exposes Rangers’ flaws

Last night was one to forget for the Rangers. Facing the Blues for the second time in eight days, they were no match in St. Louis.

The Blues backed up captain Ryan O’Reilly by blowing out the Rangers 6-2. It was last week that O’Reilly thought his team was better than the Rangers following a 5-3 defeat at MSG. One in which a good third period along with the brilliant play of Vezina and Hart candidate Igor Shesterkin allowed the Blueshirts to come back and win.

Maybe O’Reilly wasn’t wrong. The interesting part is unlike that game which featured the return of Pavel Buchnevich, the rematch didn’t. Buchnevich missed Thursday’s game due to being in concussion protocol due to an unpenalized dirty hit from Austin Watson who wasn’t disciplined for it. Of course not.

Even without Buchnevich, the Blues boast plenty of scoring depth. Led by O’Reilly who got the fourth goal just 15 seconds into the second period that chased Shesterkin for the first time when healthy this season, they humiliated the Rangers.

Twice, Robert Thomas was allowed to score easy goals. So too did Ivan Barbashev, whose goal that made it 2-0 in a three-goal first period was so wide open that you wondered if there were any Blueshirts on the ice aside from a helpless Shesterkin.

‘They should feel embarrassed,” is how coach Gerard Gallant put it to reporters in the postgame. Although he didn’t raise his voice regarding their second consecutive listless performance, you could feel the disappointment. His remarks which included the dreaded “soft” word to describe how they played were pointed.

It was true. The worst part is their best players were responsible. Once again, the top pair of Ryan Lindgren and Adam Fox had a forgettable night. How bad were they? Lindgren twice took minor penalties in another undisciplined first. Astonishingly, the team killed off three straight St. Louis power plays including a 67 second five-on-three.

Following the third successful kill, the Blueshirts melted down. The Blues got goals from Thomas and Barbashev 45 seconds apart to go up 2-0. Thomas would add his second to make it three straight goals over a 2:36 span.

On the Blues’ second and third goals, Fox and Lindgren were caught out for both. They didn’t defend either sequence well. There was no support from the forwards which included Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider on Thomas’s second tally. Both were culpable throughout.

In fact, those four players went a combined minus-15. Fox, Lindgren and Kreider each finished minus-four while Zibanejad was minus-three along with Alexis Lafreniere. At least he showed a pulse going after goalscorer David Perron during a scrum in the third period.

When your best players don’t show up, you’re not going to win on most nights. We’ll absolve Artemi Panarin and Ryan Strome, who at least had some chances against winning St. Louis netminder Ville Husso. He still came up with a couple of big saves on Dryden Hunt and Panarin that helped the Blues pull away.

The only time the Blueshirts scored was on the power play. Trailing by three late in the first, Strome took a Fox pass and beat Husso with a slap shot for his 13th at 18:37. It also marked the first assist for Shesterkin, who started the play with a nice outlet for Fox. The only good moment for the Rangers’ Team MVP.

Instead of bringing momentum from the Strome power play goal into the second, they lost the opening face-off and then stood around and watched O’Reilly beat Shesterkin from the slot high blocker. The goal came at 15 seconds. On it, Zibanejad fell down. It was another easy goal for the Blues.

At that point, Gallant had seen enough. He mercy pulled Shesterkin from the net. Obviously, it had nothing to do with him. He entered play with 28 wins a GAA below 2.00 and over a .940 save percentage. That changed due to allowing four goals on 17 shots in 20:04. When he returns to face Dallas tomorrow, it’ll be 28-7-3 with a 2.02 GAA, .939 save percentage and three shutouts.

It didn’t get any better. Alex Georgiev relieved Shesterkin. Following a 5-2 loss to the Wild in which he was very candid afterwards about needing to play more, he gave up two more Blues goals in 38 seconds. He fell down when Jake Walman made it 5-1. Then, Perron had a shot go off Patrik Nemeth past Georgiev to put the Rangers down five.

Pitiful. Most alarming is that all six Blues’ goals came at five-on-five. An area that isn’t a Rangers’ strength. They have relied on their highly rated power play a lot. In fact, K’Andre Miller scored his first career power play goal to close out the scoring yesterday. The two PPG’s last night pushed them to number two in the league.

The Rangers click at 26.3 percent (42-for-160). It’s mostly due to the lethal top unit. Featuring league leader Kreider (19 PPG) and Zibanejad (11 PPG), they’ve done damage on the five-on-four. In fact, 38 of the 42 goals on the power play have come from the foursome of Kreider, Zibanejad, Panarin (5) and Strome (3). The other four are from Jacob Trouba, Miller, Kaapo Kakko (top unit) and current Wolf Pack defenseman Nils Lundkvist.

That’s putting a lot of eggs in your basket. At least Miller got one. He was able to get behind and take a Panarin feed to beat Husso for his fifth. A play in which he showed off the superb skating and offensive capability that once made him a forward. Considering his overall improvement, there’s much to like about Miller. No longer a player I would part with.

One of the reasons for the five-on-five struggles is the lack of a consistent forecheck. Far too often, the Rangers are one and done. Opponents are finding it too easy to transition and gain the zone without much push back. Those are correctable areas Gallant can address in practice and by showing video.

It doesn’t help matters that the bottom six forwards aren’t getting it done. While Gallant remains steadfast in keeping the gritty Hunt with Panarin and Strome on the second line so he can keep Barclay Goodrow in a checking role, it isn’t helping. At least Goodrow has 12 goals and 23 points.

Hunt (4-7-11) is a good energy guy who plays hard. But he can’t be on the second line. At least he broke a long drought by scoring his fourth from Strome against the Wild. The trouble is that’s a rarity. He blew a great chance by shooting back into Husso’s pads when it was still close last night. The four goals and 11 points are a career high. Hunt also has 120 hits.

Imagine what Vitali Kravtsov could do if he’d been given a chance with Panarin and Strome. Of course, he was already behind Lafreniere and Kakko on the depth chart. Don’t forget that was before Lafreniere adjusted to being moved to the right wing on the top line. Kravtsov had two goals and an assist in a four-game sweep for Traktor in the first round of the Gagarin Cup.

It’s not like Kravtsov is a realistic option once his KHL season ends. Given his history with Team President and GM Chris Drury and the way he left without reporting to Hartford, it’s much likelier that Kravtsov is part of a package in a trade to upgrade the scoring.

I just can’t figure out how Hunt and Julien Gauthier are better options. The latter a player who routinely blows scoring chances that define logic. Gauthier has three goals in 44 games. His shooting percentage is 4.8 percent. He was a former first round pick.

Meanwhile now with the Kraken, Colin Blackwell is up to eight goals with eight assists in 36 games. Six points have come over the last five for a complementary player who had success with Panarin and Strome last season. Blackwell posted career bests with 12 goals, 10 helpers and 22 points in 47 contests as a Blueshirt. Seventeen of those 22 points came at even strength. Looks like they left the wrong player unprotected.

In a similar development, former Ranger Brett Howden has eight goals and 11 assists for 19 points on the struggling Golden Knights. He centers the fourth line. Some players aren’t always what you think. He is a checking forward and solid penalty killer. The Rangers thought Howden was more than that due to his surprising early success.

I’m not suggesting they should’ve kept Howden. He had a nightmarish ’21 where he only scored one goal with six assists over 42 games. Sometimes, a player needs a change. In his case, Howden did. Good for him on regaining his confidence.

What’s most disappointing is that Filip Chytil has had a similar forgettable year. He played in his 46th game yesterday. In 14:54 of ice time, the 22-year old had four shots and was denied by Husso on a mini break. He also drew a penalty.

While he’s looked better since returning, six goals and 14 points isn’t what was expected. It looks like another former first round pick will be sent elsewhere by March 21. He isn’t happy with how he’s been used.

Gallant noted that they’re missing some players. He was referring to Kakko and Kevin Rooney. The latter who also hasn’t scored since December. Sammy Blais is severely missed now. These days, when there’s hardly a semblance of a forecheck, the former St. Louis Blue who plays with the necessary edge would have fit in well. He was prior to P.K. Subban ending his season. Blais sure could’ve solved some of the issues.

With such a lack of scoring punch on the third and fourth lines, it puts more pressure on the top six to perform. They’ve gotten a special year from Kreider, whose 38 goals and 19 on the power play lead the team. His next point will be a new career high. In 58 games, he has 53 points. That was last reached in ’16-17 in 75 games. Without the true captain, the offense would be sunk.

While Kreider and Zibanejad have been the most consistent performers at even strength, Panarin has struggled recently. The 35 even strength points still pace the Blueshirts. However, he’s become too much of a one trick pony. There are too many instances where he passes up quality scoring opportunities for fancy passes that lead to turnovers. Combined with sidekick Strome, who also is very unselfish, they haven’t been as effective this season.

Not having a true right winger hasn’t helped. If Drury can go out and get a proven player better suited for Panarin and Strome, that would go a long way to fixing the problem. Then, when Kakko returns, there wouldn’t be as much pressure. He could play on the third line and still get second power play time. Who knows what to expect. There’s still no timetable.

It would seem Drury should target two forwards. One who can finish and one who isn’t offensively inept that can forecheck. There are some candidates that could be available. Cross Joe Pavelski off the list. He re-signed with the Stars for another year. A move that was expected. Dallas is in wildcard position right behind the Wild and Predators.

Whether they decide to move J.T. Miller remains to be seen. The Canucks are in the hunt. Miller is their best player and has one year remaining on a cap friendly deal. Vancouver could look to trade Brock Boeser instead. He has over a seven million qualifier this summer and turns unrestricted the following year. If I were them, I’d keep Miller and extend him.

We know the Rangers have interest in Miller along with other suitors. He sure would solve a lot of issues. Any team that acquires him would have Miller as a two-year rental. Unless they could reach an agreement on an extension. If the ask includes Braden Schneider or Brennan Othmann, that’s a pass. Schneider is a player Vancouver is rumored to be interested in. He plays with poise. It’s understandable. If you’ve seen Oliver Ekman-Larsson play, you know why.

If Nashville stays where they are, would Filip Forsberg really be available? I wouldn’t if I were them. They should show a commitment to winning. Nashville fans love their team and don’t want to see their top finisher leave. Especially when they boast an elite goalie in Juuse Saros and top defenseman in Roman Josi.

I’ve mentioned Phil Kessel before in this blog. He just became a Dad. Congrats. He’s been available for a while. The Coyotes are moving forward in their rebuild. They sure aren’t hurting offensively. Clayton Keller and Nick Schmaltz are filling it up.

The 34-year old Kessel can be had on the cheap. He’s a proven performer and Stanley Cup champion. While he’s struggled to finish this season, it’s not due to a lack of shots (117). His luck would probably change on a different roster.

I can see Drury getting on the phone with John Davidson, who’s back in Columbus. Max Domi is a hard-nosed player who is unrestricted this summer. With the postseason less of a possibility due to the Caps’ recent resurgence, Domi is likely to get moved. He could be a nice addition for a contender looking to bolster secondary scoring.

What about the Canadiens? Since Marty St. Louis took over, they’re winning games and scoring. The Habs have three potential trade targets including checking forward Artturi Lehkonen. He’s caught fire recently with six goals and eight points over the last five games.

The 26-year old Finn is a solid player who can add to a third line. Twenty-five of his 28 points have come at even strength. He also has two shorthanded goals. Lehkonen is restricted this off-season and unrestricted in 2023. He makes $2.3 million.

Veteran defensemen Jeff Petry and Ben Chiarot could be on the move. Chiarot has been heavily rumored. The Rangers could look to upgrade the third pair by adding a player of Chiarot’s caliber. Nemeth is currently on the left side next to Schneider. The 30-year old would be an upgrade. But at what cost? Jeff Gorton surely would want Drury to pay up. It might be too much.

Petry is a right defenseman who is very experienced. He was having an awful season before St. Louis took over. He’s been much better since. Unlike Chiarot who can walk, he’s signed through 2025 with a $6.25 million cap hit attached. At 34, that makes him unlikely for some teams.

It’s impossible to know what Drury is thinking. However, it’s better that the last two games happened now. They weren’t competitive in either loss to the Wild or Blues. Two good teams that play a heavy style.

Gallant’s reasoning for taking Lafreniere off the first line against Minnesota and replacing him with Ryan Reaves was due to them taking liberties. Something the Blues also did in last night’s rematch. It’s not like the Rangers back down from anyone. Under Gallant, they go back at opponents and stand up for each other.

However, when more teams are using the strategy to go after Fox in the corners, it could explain his unsteady play. This is his third season. He’s never played a full 82-game schedule. He also isn’t as equipped as Cale Makar for the physicality. Fox is smaller and elusive. But the ice tends to shrink as the games go on. That’s exactly what we’re seeing.

Tighter checking makes it harder on skill players. Especially Panarin. A great skater and playmaker, his East/West passes aren’t connecting as frequently. If he shot more, it wouldn’t be as predictable. He and Strome are also not strong defensively. They’ve been victimized on some goals against. That’s why they need a strong right wing to fill the void.

They still miss Jesper Fast. Why the old regime didn’t re-sign him I’ll never understand. He’s playing well for the first place Hurricanes. Of course, Fast is a good five-on-five player who’s defensively responsible. He also is strong at winning battles and loose pucks. Stuff the smaller Blackwell also did well while filling in last year.

There’s still time for the Rangers to make the upgrades. Adding players capable of contributing is much better than Gallant talking up Morgan Barron or Tim Gettinger. Jonny Brodzinski isn’t the answer either. Establishing a checking line that can forecheck is a must.

In the playoffs, it can’t be the same guys. That’s not a winning formula. It’s usually the players you least expect who step up and make a name for themselves. That’s exactly why they got Goodrow. He’s only one guy. They need more.

Addressing the lack of scoring depth is a necessity. The only question for Drury is how far is he willing to go with this roster. Is he all in? Or is it wiser to wait one more year when 2021 first round pick Brennan Othmann could be on the third line by 2023? So could Will Cuylle.

At what cost are they willing to risk this year when it looks more realistic to seriously contend next year? We’ll get the answer soon enough.

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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