Icy cold reality hitting for identity less Blueshirts

This was the scene in the Wild locker room before their game on Saturday afternoon against the Ducks. Ryan Reaves hyped up his new teammates by introducing the starting lineup in a scene similar to what he did in over a year on Broadway.

A look at all the excited and happy faces in the Wild room reminded us of what Reaves provided behind the scenes for the Rangers. As fun and entertaining a player he is, he was deemed expendable by the organization due to falling behind Julien Gauthier and Ryan Carpenter on the depth chart.

When it became clear that Gauthier had earned his spot back after returning from Hartford, it was hard to envision much of a role for the likable Reaves. With coach Gerard Gallant continuing to play Sammy Blais while he struggled to find his game due to missing most of last season, it was painfully obvious that Reaves’ days were numbered.

As soon as Vitaly Kravtsov was finally cleared and patiently waited for Gallant to put him back in the lineup, you knew Team President and GM Chris Drury would have to either place Reaves on waivers or find a taker for his $1.75 million salary. They had to clear cap space. That was due to Drury, who screwed up last off-season. His mistakes burned a team that had great chemistry last season.

Whatever your opinion is of the underwhelming ’22-23 Blueshirts who embarrassed themselves further on Saturday night by losing to the woefully bad Blackhawks 5-2 at the World’s Most Expensive Arena, there is an identity crisis for a mentally fragile team that’s lost its confidence. It’s obvious in the negative body language of the players. Frustration has boiled over. The normally unflappable Adam Fox was visibly shaken at the bench.

It’s been a struggle for almost every key player. While Fox, Mika Zibanejad (team-leading 13 goals and 8 PPG) and Chris Kreider (5-2-7 over last 7 games) have still performed well, there have been noticeable issues plaguing the team. The continued lapses and sloppy play have cost them dearly.

How else to explain inexplicable defeats to lesser lights San Jose, Columbus, Anaheim (still only one regulation win) and now Chicago? They’ve blown multiple goal leads in ugly home losses to the Red Wings, Islanders and Oilers. Two of the three they didn’t even get a point in due to lousy third periods.

There’s the ridiculous 4-10 record at MSG. Home ice disadvantage. Where transient sections exist with a new generation of fans who sound like they’re at a funeral. Excuse the visual. A Garden that had more Devils fans who were much louder last Monday night in support of their first place team, who came back from an early two-goal deficit to win 5-4.

On Saturday night, the fans who spent their money for the expensive tickets finally turned on the Rangers. After one of the first two shots went in for the Blackhawks on a deflection by household name Reese Johnson, the collective groan from the crowd grew louder. It only got worse.

In as mind-numbing a first period as there’s been, the Blueshirts couldn’t score on Petr Mrazek. He had his one big game making 21 of 22 saves before an injury ended his night following the second period. Of course he did. The Rangers can make any goalie look like the second coming of Hasek, Brodeur or Roy.

The really exasperating part was for the longest time, the Blackhawks’ shot total was frozen on two. Despite more attack time and scoring chances, the Rangers pop-gun offense did nothing with it. They kept missing the net. There was a wide open look at an open net for Alexis Lafreniere. Instead, he missed by shooting the puck back into a sliding Mrazek, who made the save.

It’s not even worth posting. This is the former top pick of 2020. A player so hyped that they never considered that Tim Stutzle might actually be the better player. To be clear, Lafreniere had a big IIHF U20 World Junior Championships in his draft year for Canada. He teamed up with Dylan Cozens on the same line to lead them to gold. Lafreniere had 10 points (4-6-10) to win tournament MVP.

Stutzle recorded five assists in his first tournament for Germany to get on the radar. The following year in the 2021 WJC, he dominated by putting up 10 points (5-5-10) for Deutschland. The line with current Sabre J.J. Peterka and Florian Elias had a great tournament- combining for 29 points. Although he didn’t win tournament MVP which went to Trevor Zegras of Team USA after he led them to the gold medal, Stutzle’s game-breaking speed and ability to elevate the play of teammates stood out. It was impressive.

Credit the Senators, who took him third after Lafreniere and Quinton Byfield, for having enough sense to assign Stutzle to Germany for a second WJC. He dominated in his second appearance and looked explosive. No wonder he’s doing well with Ottawa in Year Three following a breakout season. He gets top minutes and first power play. That really helps the development of a young player. A foreign concept in the Big Apple.

On the flip side, the Rangers could’ve decided to send Lafreniere to Canada for another WJC. But the thought process was that he’d already proven he could succeed on that stage against his peers. So, they kept him for the abbreviated 56-game ’20-21 season to begin. It didn’t until the WJC concluded due to the pandemic. Considering how slowly he started, maybe that was a miscalculation. He hadn’t played hockey in a while.

Stuck behind top left wings Chris Kreider and Artemi Panarin, Lafreniere was third on the depth chart. There were even learning moments where he found himself on the fourth line under former coach David Quinn. He wound up finishing with 12 goals and nine assists in 56 games.

Lafreniere showed improvement under Gallant in ’21-22. Even without ideal ice time due to the pecking order and hardly enough power play duty which remains a lingering issue, Lafreniere scored 19 even strength goals and had 31 points in 79 contests. His play along with Filip Chytil and former ’19 second pick Kaapo Kakko was good in the playoffs. That third line contributed offensively and were effective on the cycle. The nine points (2-7-9) he had during the trip to the Conference Finals was cause for excitement.

When former deadline additions Andrew Copp, Frank Vatrano, Tyler Motte departed along with key second pivot Ryan Strome, there was some concern over losing the depth that supplied secondary scoring. However, the hope was that by replacing Strome with the 200 foot Vincent Trocheck, Lafreniere and Kakko could play bigger roles. That hasn’t happened. Instead, they enter Monday’s game versus the similar Blues with seven combined goals and 18 points through the quarter mark.

At the moment, the Rangers bring a mediocre 11-10-5 record into play. That’s 27 points in 26 games. It leaves them out of the wildcard behind both the younger Red Wings and battle tested Penguins. With the Panthers finally starting to pick it up, that doesn’t bode well.

If they want to make the playoffs, the Rangers have to play more consistently. Instead, we get piss poor efforts against the Senators in a home rematch and then the tanking Blackhawks, who predictably were shutout by the Islanders last night. They’re chasing Connor Bedard along with the Ducks, Coyotes, Blue Jackets, Sharks and Flyers. Expect the Sens to move up in the standings. They’re not as bad as the aforementioned teams.

What made Saturday night worse was how awful the second and third periods were. Instead of responding down a goal, the disjointed Blueshirts couldn’t summon enough energy despite captain Jacob Trouba’s best efforts. He had two huge open ice hits that led to fights in an emotional second period.

Jujhar Khaira went after Trouba following a clean hit on Jason Dickinson. A victim last year of a huge Trouba hit that put him out of action with a concussion, Khaira fought Trouba to a draw. The first scrap came over three minutes into the second.

On a five-on-four with Seth Jones in the box, the Rangers didn’t make him pay. A Zibanejad slashing minor cut short the power play. A lazy hook from Gallant pet Carpenter gave the Blackhawks a two-man advantage. In the first, they looked like they’d never practiced it. However, Patrick Kane was able to put in a rebound past Jaroslav Halak for a 2-0 lead. A minute later while still on a five-on-four, Max Domi beat Halak from distance to increase the deficit to three.

Boos rained down at The Garden. If you paid these prices which exclude the overpriced food and beverage, you’d be fit to be tied. The Rangers didn’t respond until Trouba caught Andreas Athanasiou with a monster hit that nearly decapitated him. It was shoulder to upper chest. Of course, Athanasiou cried about it afterwards. Maybe he should take up polo.

That’s how lifeless they were prior. On the ensuing power play, this time Zibanejad connected when he buried a Fox pass for a one-timer past Mrazek to break up the shutout with 2:09 left. They trailed 3-1 following the period.

Well respected captain Jonathan Toews took up for his cowardly teammate. He quickly made a beeline for Trouba and put him in a headlock. At least he made wrestling fans happy. I quite enjoyed it. That fight amounted to nothing. It’s Toews, who’s likely headed for the Hockey Hall Of Fame. Even though he’s not the same player, I’ve always been a fan of him. It’s been a tough go for Toews the past couple of years.

The end result from the fight was Toews receiving an instigator. When he went to the locker room after getting five for fighting, an incensed Trouba slammed his helmet and had a few choice words for teammates on the bench. It was easy to figure out. “Bleeping wake up!”

Before Taylor Raddysh turned MSG into a morgue, Trocheck hit another goalpost. Nobody draws more iron than him. If he’s not missing wide, the puck is clanging off the post or crossbar. It’s really frustrating. For the effort he puts in unlike declining compiler Artemi Panarin, Trocheck deserves a break. It isn’t his fault the team stinks. He’s a three zone player who Gallant can trust in any situation including penalty kill and on key draws. He actually wins more than he loses.

Here’s how I’d summarize what happened afterwards. Trouba returned and got called for a phantom hook because Kane looked directly at the ref and sold it. So, it was a bad call. Similar to the delay of game penalty Mrazek got nabbed for back in the first when he accidentally bumped into his net knocking it slightly off.

Predictably, the Blackhawks’ suddenly rejuvenated power play scored again for the third time. Needing one more point for 1,200 in a brilliant career, Kane took a point shot that Raddysh was able to redirect past a helpless Halak for a 4-1 lead. Playing in the spotlight, Kane had a goal and two assists to join American legends Mike Modano, Phil Housley and Jeremy Roenick as the only American players to reach 1,200. Record holder Brett Hull (1,391) has dual citizenship.

When you’re bad, this is what happens. The Rangers entered the game ranked in the top five in penalty kill. They gave up three to a bad hockey team. They are now 10th best on the kill. That’s what one lousy game did. If you think about it, the Hawks only scored once at five-on-five. Reese Johnson only 2:38 in on his tip-in from Jake McCabe and Boris Katchouk. They would add an empty netter from Max Domi.

In a period where Mrazek was replaced by the inexperienced Arvid Soderblom, the Rangers only could mount six shots on goal. The way they skated, it was like watching a slow death. The building was eerily quiet like a library. That’s how dull the action was. It was like they accepted their fate. A humiliating loss to a team that had dropped eight straight. What would you expect the way it’s going.

Trouba fought twice after laying clean hits. He let out frustration at the team and showed more emotion than anyone including the coach who somehow thought the effort was “better.” When even a beat that isn’t tough is starting to question him, that isn’t a good sign for Gallant. Even if they are without Chytil (lower-body) for a second straight game later, it’s sad that he saw something nobody else did. Just trying to save his job. No criticism either like the Ottawa debacle.

Credit also goes to Barclay Goodrow for his fight with Connor Murphy late in the second as Trouba and Toews were wrestling. Goodrow is always game. He plays honestly and mixes it up. He also has six goals. That puts him in a three-way tie with Fox and Panarin. They trail Zibanejad (13), Kreider (12) and Trocheck (8).

Goodrow places third in even strength goals. All six have come there. That remains an area the team must improve at. They have been scoring more at five-on-five with the power play struggling. That trend must continue.

If you subtract Chytil (11 points in 19 GP), that hurts the roster. He was centering Panarin and Kravtsov. A new line that looked good in their first game versus Ottawa. They weren’t as visible against Chicago. Although I did notice one active shift where Kravtsov forced a turnover and went directly in front on a point shot. It’ll be interesting to see how he does. He’s still up on line two with Trocheck and Panarin.

Unlike Saturday when Carpenter played with Chytil a scratch, it’ll be recently recalled forward Jonny Brodzinski centering the checking line between power play specialist Sammy Blais and Julien Gauthier. I kid. I don’t understand Turk’s infatuation with having Blais on PP2.

With Zac Jones sent down to Hartford where he’ll receive more minutes, that unit doesn’t even have a true point guy. Trouba isn’t a quarterback. Why not try K’Andre Miller? It’s not like his defense is so good, which he admitted recently to Mollie Walker.

Miller is paired with Braden Schneider. Something I prefer. Trouba is teamed with Libor Hajek. Hajek won the sixth defenseman job from Jones, who’s a better skater that can contribute offensively. But he still makes mistakes defensively. They feel he needs more time with the Wolf Pack. Hartford also has Matthew Robertson fine tuning his game after a good camp. At this point, I don’t care. Even if I have no idea who Ben Harpur is.

If there is one thing I didn’t like, it was the ‘fans’ giving Halak the Bronx cheer on some saves. He doesn’t deserve that. Of the four goals he allowed, the only one he could’ve had was Domi’s first on the power play that put the Hawks ahead 3-0. It looked like he didn’t pick it up. It went high blocker. Blaming Halak for this mess is ridiculous. It’s loser talk from people who don’t watch the game.

I could care less about Panarin’s two secondary assists. He has stunk it up for a while. He’s the biggest reason PP1 isn’t as good. The predictability of his cross-ice passes have led to turnovers that are cleared down the ice. He doesn’t look shot enough. Although he has tried to change that strategy, they’re not going in with regularity. Six goals (5 ESG) in 26 games for the $11.64 million dollar Bread Man isn’t good enough.

Neither has his play without Strome. Gallant shouldn’t have to bend over backwards for Panarin. If he’s not pulling his weight, then try Lafreniere on the second line at his natural position. Instead, he’s being taught to be a third liner. Great.

Kakko I don’t have much hope for. He doesn’t possess much speed and isn’t instinctive enough. He looks like a two-way checking forward who can possess pucks and kill penalties.

The issue with both is neither have that extra gear. Where as you see it with Stutzle and other young stars like Jack Hughes and Calder leader Matty Beniers. Why don’t Kakko or Lafreniere have more breakaway speed? They’re in Years 4 and 3. They should have worked on the skating.

Do the Rangers even have a skating coach? Or is it all former muckers consisting of Jed Ortmeyer, Tanner Glass, Ryane Clowe and Matt Hunwick? Who will they hire next? Ryan Hollweg.

Aside from the stagnation of the kids who are needed to produce, it feels like the Rangers are having an identity crisis. Who do they want to be? A team that to be honest came off a Cinderella run to the Eastern Conference Final last Spring that Igor Shesterkin carried. He of the .913 save percentage following a remarkable .935 last season in which he won the Vezina.

Make no mistake about it. Before those deadline additions arrived, Shesterkin stood on his head most nights. They had a great start under Gallant mostly due to Igor making unbelievable saves.

Don’t forget Dryden Hunt was on the second line. Blais was used on the top line before P.K. Subban ended his season with that dirty slewfoot. Then, Goodrow was moved up while Lafreniere and Kakko mostly stayed with Chytil. Kevin Rooney did a solid job on the fourth line and penalty kill. He left for a million to play for Calgary.

The depth isn’t as good. It was easy to ignore last year. Shesterkin, Fox, Kreider, Panarin and Zibanejad did the heavy lifting. Yes. Strome was reliable both as the second center and on the top unit. Gallant never had to deviate like he has done by trying Chytil before his latest mystery injury. Now, Trocheck gets another crack with Panarin.

If Jimmy Vesey is going to be counted on to stay up on the first line with Zibanejad and Kreider, what exactly does that say about Kakko and Lafreniere? Lafreniere was tried on the off wing. Kakko also was given a look on the right side. The production wasn’t good enough.

Lafreniere was decent with Panarin, but eventually it was obvious he had to go back to the left side, which again put him third on the depth chart. He’s willing to finish checks and get in on the forecheck. But it’s still not clicking. The consistency isn’t there. In his second year, you noticed him more during shifts. It could be a confidence issue.

What are the New York Rangers? Are they a win now team who’s missing key pieces in the top six and on defense? Or are they the miserable outfit we currently watch who show no signs of putting together a good stretch? They’ve played 26 games. There’s plenty of time to turn it around. They’d not dead and buried by any stretch.

But why do watching these games feel like a chore, bore or snore? Why did I have no excitement for last Monday’s first installment of the Battle Of Hudson? I knew what would happen. Even up two fast goals, at no point did I have any faith. With the way they make leads evaporate at home, would you feel confident?

When Gallant’s message is getting stale, it’s hard to see a turnaround. His lineups don’t inspire much. It’s See No Evil, Hear No Evil at Dolan’s Garden. If only this act co-starred Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder.

I’ve put a lot of thought into this team. Maybe too much. They don’t deserve it. It hasn’t been earned. When even the most optimistic of fans is now numb to these games expecting the worst, that speaks volumes. It’s incredible.

Will they show up for sixty minutes tonight? The Blues are a lot like the Rangers. They have good players including Pavel Buchnevich. They should be better than their 11-13-0 record. But if you’ve followed them at all, you know better. They’ve given up 90 goals and have a minus-21 differential. The Rangers are dead even there at 76 apiece.

What does it mean? Jack bleep. If they can lose to lottery teams chasing Connor Bedard, then there isn’t any expectation. We don’t know how they’ll play. It can start better and then suddenly, there can be one of those lapses they’re prone to. Or maybe it’ll start badly and they’ll turn it around. You can’t predict much with this team.

If you saw the raw emotion Trouba spoke with at his locker following Saturday’s game, you could tell how much he cares. He knows his play hasn’t been good enough. Yet he’s there win or lose. He tried to light a fire. They didn’t respond.

We also see the disappointment all over Zibanejad following these games. He gives honest assessments. Ditto for Kreider, the warrior Ryan Lindgren and Fox. It’s killing them.

Is it a locker room issue? Trouba came dangerously close to indicating as such. Things have to change. Etc. Is it about a player or the coach? Or is it all in their heads?

If they don’t get a win tonight, it’ll only get harder. They are at Vegas and Colorado this week. Then the Devils and Leafs visit. No easy games.


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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