Rangers have no answers for Devils in dismal Game Five shutout loss that puts them on the brink

It started innocently enough. On what was a routine defensive draw cleanly won by Vincent Trocheck, the puck took a funny bounce off Igor Shesterkin. It then went right to Ondrej Palat for a wrist shot that deflected off Adam Fox and sailed over a helpless Shesterkin into the net at 39 seconds.

That fluke goal gave the Devils an early lead that they wouldn’t relinquish. Even though they didn’t play badly in an exciting first period, the Rangers were unable to beat Akira Schmid. He made eight of 23 saves en route to the first postseason shutout of his young career.

After the road team took the first four games of the Battle of Hudson, this one went to the home side. Playing another complete game that included strong defensive work and checking, the Devils won Game Five over the Rangers 4-0 before a much louder Prudential Center.

By winning their third straight game of the series, the Devils now lead the first round match-up three games to two. They have gotten off the mat by sweeping two at MSG and then methodically outplaying a fragile opponent who’s searching for confidence.

From my vantage point, it looks like the Rangers are having a mental breakdown. They don’t have any answers for Schmid, who’s come on to win three consecutive starts. Astonishingly, he’s only allowed two goals on 82 shots. That’s put him in an exclusive class that even includes Hall Of Famer Tiny Thompson.

Whether or not the Rangers have done a good job testing the Swiss maestro, that’s debatable. Unlike Game Four, when they were flat, they did create some good scoring chances on the rookie netminder. However, Schmid flashed the leather to rob Artemi Panarin of a goal. He also denied Mika Zibanejad on a one-timer clocked at 94 miles per hour.

“The boys are playing phenomenal in front of me. It’s not a lot of work for me,” the Devils winning goalie said in the locker room.

There was also the big glove save on Kaapo Kakko. He kept the puck out during a wild sequence where the Rangers couldn’t figure out how they didn’t score. If they weren’t already frustrated, it looks like they have an Akira Schmid problem. He is now in their heads. How can he not be? The goalie has come in and provided stability for Lindy Ruff, who looks like a genius.

Ruff changed up his second line by moving the gritty Erik Haula and playoff clutch Ondrej Palat next to Jack Hughes. That’s paid off. Hughes didn’t score in this one, but his line did. Palat scored his 50th career postseason goal.

Haula had a huge goal at the end of a power play that made it a two-goal deficit for the Rangers. He also had a nifty set up on a backbreaking Dawson Mercer shorthanded goal. For good measure, Haula sealed it with an empty netter for a three-point game.

Even on a night, Hughes missed wide on the weak side, which the Devils have exposed as the series has moved on, the Blueshirts were miserable. They fired blanks at Schmid, who only allowed one bad rebound. Of course, that was taken care of by his defense, which has outplayed the Rangers. There are many reasons they are facing playoff extinction in the first round. That’s one of them.

After starting on fire with six assists in the first two games, Adam Fox has been awful. He’s not played anywhere close to the hockey that’s made him one of the game’s best defensemen. Instead, he’s been taken away by a more aggressive Devils defense. When he isn’t, Fox is forcing passes that aren’t there. Take the very poor pass he made to Panarin on a key power play that handcuffed him.

Instead of taking advantage of Damon Severson’s gift following a dust up between Barclay Goodrow and the very effective Kevin Bahl, Fox’s poor decision allowed Haula and Mercer to come two-on-one. He made a perfect feed across for a shorthanded rocket from Mercer that increased the Rangers’ madness to three down with 6:28 left in a dizzying second period.

It really was all downhill following Mercer’s first career playoff goal. While the statistics said that the shots were even at 13 apiece, it didn’t feel like it. The Rangers made no progress at all with Schmid, who must be seeing the puck like a beach ball. He didn’t face much pressure aside from the Goodrow line that hasn’t done much in this series. But it isn’t their fault that the team has melted down.

Following a great glove save to rob Timo Meier, who still has as many points as Mika Zibanejad and Panarin have goals (0), an emotional Shesterkin skated over to the Rangers bench and yelled at the players to get going. He had every reason to be upset. He has gotten no support and dealt with way more Devils crashing his crease than Rangers attacking Schmid. A stark contrast.

The big question for the Rangers is, can they find their game by Saturday night to force a Game Seven. They really looked slow last night. It was like Wile E. Coyote chasing the Roadrunner. I’m not kidding. That’s how much faster and more dangerous the Devils look. They’re not only using their team speed to fuel the offense. But they’re also utilizing it to check and defend.

It was another quiet night for Chris Kreider. He only registered a single shot and finished a minus-two. Much credit goes to the overlooked defense pair of Ryan Graves and John Marino. They combined to block 11 shots. As a team, the Devils blocked 24. By comparison, the Rangers blocked 14. A complete role reversal from earlier in the series.

It’s the Jersey side that’s adjusted their style to play playoff hockey. That’s led to success for a younger team that’s one win away from their first series victory since 2012. Martin Brodeur was the goalie then as they made a run to the Stanley Cup Finals.

While the key players for the Devils continue to show up, the Rangers’ best have gone missing. You could put Fox, Patrick Kane, Kreider, Miller, Panarin, Vladimir Tarasenko, Vincent Trocheck, and Zibanejad on the back of a milk carton. They’ve been invisible. It’s hard to win a series when your top stars are struggling.

Even with Gerard Gallant refusing to adjust the key personnel on the power play, he eventually pulled the plug on his lines by mixing and matching. The problem was that it was already 3-0 when he moved Kakko up to the top line. Although Kakko created opportunities, he couldn’t put the puck in. He passed up a wide open shot for a low percentage attempt from Fox. He wasn’t alone.

You had Panarin stay with Trocheck and Tarasenko, while Kane was dropped to the third line with Filip Chytil and Alexis Lafreniere. Neither young player generated enough offensively. Along with Kakko, who’s been the most effective player of the trio, they’re putting in the effort, but it hasn’t been good enough. The 21 and over Kid Line hasn’t made a difference.

Instead, it’s the Devils getting secondary scoring from Haula, who’s been one of their best players. Even with Nico Hischier having no goals, he still has contributed three assists while playing defensively responsible hockey. He is over 50 percent on face-offs in the series.

Having centers who win draws helps. The Devils boast three, including Haula and checking pivot Mike McLeod. The Rangers haven’t been bad on face-offs. They were an even 23 up and 23 down in Game Five. Zibanejad went 9-for-14. Trocheck was 7-for-15. Chytil went 4-and-4.

The issue is that after lighting up Vitek Vanecek for nine goals in identical 5-1 wins during the first two games, they’ve only scored two goals over the last three games. Not coincidentally, they’ve all been losses to put them in a hole. If you’re counting, the other goal was into an open net. So, they got 10 goals in the first 120 minutes of the series. They’ve had only a pair since over the last three games.

It’s hard to put into words what’s happened to the offense. The organization went out and acquired both Tarasenko and Kane to go for it. Although both had good moments early in the series, they’ve turned into ghosts since. It’s like the team has a bad case of Akira Schmid-itis.

The best three defensemen have been Jacob Trouba, Braden Schneider, and Niko Mikkola. That isn’t hyperbole. Neither Fox nor Ryan Lindgren have been particularly good. Miller has done little. That’s supposed to be the young defenseman the Rangers might extend for over five million per year. He’s been frequently caught out of position and not contributing offensively.

You have Lafreniere with a goose egg in his fourth series. While Gallant has liked his physical play, he’s not doing enough offensively. As for Chytil, he had a promising start but has disappeared. It’s no different than the top guns.

Unless Zibanejad, Panarin, and Kreider can get going in Game Six along with Fox, the Rangers season could end on home ice in excruciating fashion. Even worse, it would come versus their bitter Hudson rival.

As Gallant noted during the postgame, this team has been here before. They trailed the Penguins and Hurricanes three games to two in the first two rounds before rallying to advance. The biggest difference is that they haven’t solved Schmid. It isn’t like facing a third stringer or Antti Raanta. Schmid is bigger and plays much calmer. He’s also getting a lot of help, which he praised in the interview above.

Can the Rangers dig deep to force Game Seven? Only if their best players finally show up. If they don’t, no lineup changes will matter. They have to get to Schmid early in Game Six. There has to be more of a willingness to make life difficult for him. It can’t be all perimeter without enough traffic.

The Rangers must also give the fans a reason to get excited. Right now, plenty of loyal fans are doubting them. Does this roster have the right mix to pull off what last year’s did? That one had a healthier balance. Sometimes, the sexy moves don’t always work. We’re about to find out either way.

There’s nothing more to say. Either they rise up or go home in embarrassing fashion.


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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