Who wants the two wildcards in the crowded Metro?

Keith Yandle, Mats Zuccarello Ryan McDonagh

Ryan McDonagh and Mats Zuccarello have done a lot of celebrating along with Henrik Lundqvist since the Rangers run in 2014.

With the All-Star break concluding highlighted by Brian Boyle replacing Taylor Hall to represent the Devils to thunderous applause in Tampa from appreciative fans who support the courageous vet battling Leukemia, the question of the day remains the same. Who wants the two wildcards in the Eastern Conference?

It’s not easily answered. With the Pens starting to right the ship now that Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are on fire along with starter Matt Murray finally healthy, it looks like the two-time defending champs will play themselves into a top three finish in the Metro Division. They should overtake the Devils or Blue Jackets.

Assuming that’s the case, it would push either New Jersey or Columbus down to the crazy wildcard competition with the rest of the division. The other five teams are battling for the final two spots. At present entering Thursday’s slate on February 1, the Pens’ recent hot streak has vaulted them up to second with 59 points. One ahead of the Devils, who got a much needed win over the Sabres on Tuesday. They sit third with 58. A identical amount of points to the Blue Jackets. However, they have played one less game and posted one more win in regulation/overtime which is the first tiebreaker.

Columbus sits in the first wildcard. The Flyers remain in the second one despite a disappointing 5-3 loss at the Caps on Rivalry Night. A game they led 2-0 after a period turned into five straight Washington goals. They visit Newark later tonight for a big game between I-95 rivals. The Flyers have won the last two match-ups.

While Philadelphia remains in the second wildcard with 56 points and two more ROW (24), the Rangers finally return to action by hosting Toronto at MSG. At 55 points with 22 ROW and 32 games remaining, they can go one of two ways. With rumors circulating that changes could be on the horizon come Feb. 26, they can either put a good stretch together and change the organization’s mind or continue their inconsistent ways and fall out of the race.

Considering how teams keep losing around them including the Islanders, who dropped two in a row in ugly fashion following a feel good road win at Vegas, the Blueshirts should probably hang around. If for no other reason, a healthy and motivated Henrik Lundqvist continues to have a bounce back year. He maybe turning 36 in a month like tennis pal Roger Federer but you’d never know it. He’s faced a high volume of shots with many quality and has posted a .922 save percentage. The 2.61 goals-against-average is very respectable given the amount of work the affable Swede’s put in. With 21 victories, he needs nine more to reach 30 for the 12th time in his illustrious 13-year career. The only season he didn’t was the shortened year of ‘12-13 when he still won 24.

With scoring drying up since Chris Kreider went down, Lundqvist has kept his team in almost every game. Games such as the Ducks disappointment in which they chased him have been rare. The Rangers were able to salvage the final game of a otherwise bad four-game road trip by edging the Sharks thanks to Kevin Hayes’ return and J.T. Miller responding well to a benching with three points. They’re hoping that will provide a spark.

Even though the defense remains sketchy, Tony DeAngelo has shown improvement since returning following Kevin Shattenkirk having surgery which should keep him out at least another four to six weeks. The young right defenseman from New Jersey has recorded two assists while providing a steady puckmoving D in Shattenkirk’s place. Hopefully, he can build on it.

There remain plenty of questions. Ryan McDonagh could be available if the team decides that’s the best course of action moving forward. They’re not thinking about this Spring but rather long-term. Both McDonagh and popular leading point getter Mats Zuccarello have one year remaining on their deals. Whether it’s at the deadline, this summer or next year, one or both could be on the market.

If McDonagh can be had, it’s time for the club to find out about sophomore Brady Skjei. A skilled player with better speed, skating and size, he would automatically become the team’s best number one option. But is a coaching staff that’s been conservative with young players the right fit? That is highly unlikely.

The Rangers seem to have found something by substituting Rick Nash for Kreider on the top line with Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich. Nash caught fire recording three two-goal games in January hiking his total to 15. But with his contract expiring, he’s likely to be traded to a contender for a good draft pick and prospect.

Then there’s Michael Grabner. A perfect fit due to his combination of defensive acumen and game breaking speed, he’s posted the most goals (48) since the start of ‘16-17 after signing. His 27 markers ranked second last year behind Kreider (28). His 21 pace the Blueshirts. Most amazing is most of the production has come at even strength. Grabner recently added a shorthanded goal. He doesn’t play power play and has fluctuated between the third and fourth line most of ‘17-18. He’s penciled in on the third line tonight with Peter Holland and Jesper Fast. Unfortunately, his value won’t ever be higher. A pending unrestricted free agent this summer, he’s a perfect candidate for a team to acquire. His speed and shooting percentage make him a good rental.

So much is predicated on what the Rangers do over the next three and a half weeks. They can also rid themselves of Nick Holden, who’s been miscast on the top pair out of necessity. On a better team, he can be more serviceable as a second or third pair D who can contribute offensively. It’s amazing how the critics have conveniently forgotten his 11 goals, 23 helpers and 34 points from last season. All career bests. While it’s easy to take apart his defensive shortcomings, the notion that he’s been a underachiever is wrong. They only gave up a fourth round pick and can probably get it back if not a third in a buyers market.

Like many, I want to see the team do what’s best for the future. This isn’t a championship contender. They have some tough decisions coming starting this summer with key RFA’s Hayes, Miller, Skjei and Jimmy Vesey. Then comes next summer depending on what happens with the big two of McDonagh and Zuccarello. Do they want to pay a big price for either into their 30’s when they’ll decline?

If they do make the postseason, it’ll be due to the performance of Hayes, Miller and Zuccarello who currently comprise the second line. Nobody can predict what GM Jeff Gorton will do and how it’ll impact the lineup. With 2017 first round picks Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil in Hartford along with Vinni Lettieri, changes are coming.

As far as the Wild Wild Eastern wildcard goes, it’s anyone’s guess. All the remaining contenders are flawed. The Flyers had a great January but can revert due to their goalies and defense. The big line of Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier and Jake Voracek lead the way along with Wayne Simmonds, offensive defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere and future defensive star Ivan Provorov. The Blue Jackets don’t score consistently enough and Sergei Bobrovsky hasn’t been the same since mid-December. They’re banking on Cam Atkinson to bolster a offense led by Russian wizard Artemi Panarin. Seth Jones and Zach Werenski are big factors from the blueline.

The Islanders can handle the Rangers and beat good opponents but then fall flat due to a dreadful D that puts too much stress on Jaro Halak or Thomas Greiss. Led by ace John Tavares, Anders Lee, Josh Bailey and Calder front runner Mathew Barzal along with Jordan Eberle plus emerging second-year man Anthony Beauvillier, they have plenty of offense. The rest is a giant question mark.

The Devils are good offensively when Hall is going along with rookies Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt. But they need more from Kyle Palmieri with Marcus Johansson (concussion) out. Plus continued leadership from inspiration Boyle and offensive defensemen Will Butcher and Damon Severson. Cory Schneider can’t do it alone. Backup Keith Kinkaid had one of his better games the other day.

Quietly up to 54 points with just 20 ROW, the Hurricanes are hit or miss. Like the Devils, they’re a young club that depends on key scorers Sebastian Aho, Jeff Skinner and Teuvo Teravainen. They also have vets like Jordan Staal, Justin Williams and Victor Rask who can aid their push. First-time All-Star Noah Hanifin and Justin Faulk are important cogs to the back end. But can Cam Ward carry this team into the playoffs with Scott Darling clearly the backup?

As one can conclude, there’s no correct answer. Unless Detroit or Florida with the Panthers more capable of making a run, the Metro should place five teams in the playoffs. After the Caps and Pens, who will be the remaining three? We’ll have to find out.

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Playing Cody McLeod over Paul Carey is as absurd as Vesey on fourth line

Entering the season, we knew the Rangers weren’t tough. They added no one to address that area by design.

Under Alain Vigneault, they play a certain way. A skating transition style who chooses quality over quantity in shots. By not always shooting, they leave themselves vulnerable to turnovers in the neutral zone and offensive end. That can fuel opponents’ transition.

In a mediocre first half if you can call having 32 games left following the All-Star Game, they often left Henrik Lundqvist and Ondrej Pavelec out to dry. So you get a middling team that enters tomorrow night’s match against the Maple Leafs out of the wildcard.

Without much push back from a roster that often turns the other cheek, it leads to teams crashing into Lundqvist and scrums. Nobody respects this team. They can take runs and not worry about retribution unless Brendan Smith takes matters into his own hands. That is kind of sad.

Say what you want about Tanner Glass. At least he stood up for fallen teammates and did his job. A good character team first guy, the veteran was often criticized for what he wasn’t by many Ranger pundits. His teammates loved him. Something the Corsi metric community fails to understand. Not every player is going to score. This team struggles to score goals and can’t defend.

After 50 games, the organization saw enough to claim enforcer Cody McLeod. A well known tough guy who is ready and willing to drop them, he’s a Ranger for that reason. Maybe seeing Pavel Buchnevich picked on in a recent game out West convinced them to make a move.

The question is why. What’s going to change between now and April? I was under the assumption they would be sellers at the Feb. 26 trade deadline. Even if you must take Larry Brooks with a grain of salt, it makes perfect sense for GM Jeff Gorton to get what he can for expiring contracts including Rick Nash and leading goalscorer Michael Grabner. David Desharnais and Nick Holden are included.

As far as whether or not pending 2019 UFA’s Ryan McDonagh and Mats Zuccarello are dealt, that largely depends on the market. Is there a team that would have interest in renting a good defenseman McDonagh for two years? Toronto possibly. One look at their blueline is enough reason to strongly consider it. But they’ll have to pay a good price.

Zuccarello can definitely aid a team who is looking for a proven playmaking scorer that never backs down. Signed through next year at a cap friendly $4.5 million AAV, he could definitely help a contender. As much as I love him, it’s time to move on.

There’s no reason for Jimmy Vesey to be on the fourth line with Desharnais and McLeod, who will make his Rangers debut over solid depth contributor Paul Carey. I can’t understand it. Are they so concerned all of a sudden about being pushed around? It’s the antithesis of what Vigneault is even if some of his lineups in the past were confusing.

Why should a hard working forward like Carey come out of the lineup for McLeod? Carey has been a nice surprise scoring six goals with six assists in a secondary role. He is a good penalty killer who also netted the club’s first shorthanded goal.

Nothing makes any sense. Not the usage of Vesey, who can go from fourth line to top six and receive power play time. A young player in his second season, he’s been totally mismanaged. He’s one of the few forwards on this roster who goes to the net and mixes it up. When you look at why he has 10 goals, you have to point the finger at the coach.

Nobody will. They did when Buchnevich went from top line to fourth line along with missing some shifts. Granted. He has more talent than Vesey and is tied for second in team scoring with 32 points. The issue is that by having Vesey mostly in a secondary role, it’s no way to properly develop the former Hobey Baker winner. Do you think the Preds would’ve handled him this way had he signed? What about the Sabres who lack scoring depth behind Jack Eichel and Evander Kane?

McLeod will bring what he does and take on all comers. He will play physical and finish checks. This isn’t about him as much as it’s about a confusing organization who leaves its own fans baffled.

I can’t think of one good reason Carey is sitting tomorrow. Just like I can’t think straight regarding Vinni Lettieri, who Vigneault tried in a top six, power play role in his short stint. If he didn’t hit so many posts, he probably would have four or five more goals than the one he produced with three assists in 10 games. He also was moved around.

That’s the coach. It’s confusing. Nothing will ever make sense until the whole staff is gone and they turn over the roster.

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A Salute To Number 68! Saying goodbye to all-time great Jagr is not easy

bruins-star-jaromir-jagr-listed-his-favorite-player-growing-up-as-jaromir-jagr

We Salute You Number 68! If this trulyis it for him in the NHL, thank you to one of the all-time best Jaromir Jagr for being a true great of the game. AP Photo via Getty Inages

If this truly is it for Jaromir Jagr, we are saying goodbye to a true hockey legend in every sense of the word. The ageless all-time great has been one in a million. A Eurostar who made hockey so much prettier to watch for fans and journalists.

He made the game look easy. After being drafted by the Penguins fifth overall in 1990, he came in as a Czech teenager and immediately teamed up with Mario Lemieux to win consecutive Stanley Cups. The chemistry between number 66 and number 68 remains poetry in motion. As a Rangers fan who had a couple of big Springs ruined by the dynamic duo, I could only admire them as I got older.

The ‘92 Patrick Division Final stung as a teenager in high school. It was easier to take the five-game second round ouster in ‘96 due to the Rangers winning a Cup in my senior year. The beauty in which Jagr worked with Lemieux was like fine art. Think of them as Renoir or Van Gogh putting the finishing touches on a memorable painting.

Priceless. That’s how I would describe the Lemieux/Jagr Era. The thing about it is what if Mario had not had Hodgkins Disease or missed all that time due to injuries? It’s a age old question. When they went for a three-peat, the underdog Islanders upset them in a physical seven-game series to advance to the Wales Conference Final where they lost to eventual champ Montreal. What if David Volek didn’t score the series winner at The Igloo? Might those Pens have gotten past Patrick Roy and made it three in a row? We’ll never know.

What about that ‘96 run? After Lemieux and Jagr torched the revamped Rangers, they were frustrated against the agitating defensive style of the trapping Panthers when clutching and grabbing stifled the Pens superior attack. It was a much tougher brand of playoff hockey. Eventually, Lemieux retired and left Jagr to take over the leadership role in Pittsburgh.

While it’s easy to point to the amazing goal Jagr scored against the Blackhawks in the repeat in which he undressed them before whipping a backhand past Ed Belfour, my fondest memory remains his heroic performance on one leg in the ‘99 Playoffs to stun heavily favored top seed New Jersey in the first round.

He returned for Game Six with a groin pull. What made Jagr so special was his strength. On one leg, he willed the Pens back to a seven-game upset. It was the way in which he did it that was truly magnificent. Facing the tight checking of future Hall of Famers Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer along with the nastiness of Bobby Holik, Jagr kept coming.

With his team trailing by a goal late in regulation, he found a way to stuff in a German Titov drop in front past all-time great Martin Brodeur to tie the game with 2:12 left. The reaction from the home crowd was what you’d expect. That it was on Fox called by Doc Emrick and John Davidson made it better theatre.

Still facing elimination in overtime, a dominant shift by the Jagr line resulted in the momentum turning game-winner. The Devils were unable to change due to turning over pucks in the neutral zone. It would be the death blow. Martin Straka pounced on a turnover and went around a Devil for a two-on-one. The anticipation could be felt as he centered across for a Jagr one-timer top shelf to miraculously win the game to an explosion in the arena.

Maybe that was enough to give his teammates the inspiration needed to go into hostile territory and finish the job. They did. And Jagr was a big part of it along with Straka and ex-Ranger Alexei Kovalev.

I think watching the way they won Game Six with a clearly hurt Jagr leading them with the tying and winning goals is what captivated me. My mind was blown. Coincidentally, that was also the season Jagr won his only Hart Trophy. He won his third Art Ross (second of four straight spanning ‘98-01) by leading the league with 127 points (44-83-127).

For a superstar who won five scoring titles, it’s astonishing that he only won one league MVP. Jagr finished runner-up four times including in ‘05-06 with the Rangers after accurately predicting that they would make the playoffs to end a near decade drought. At 33 going on 34, No. 68 was at his finest shattering single season franchise marks in goals (54) and points (123) to finish second in scoring to Hart recipient Joe Thornton (125). Jumbo Joe edged Jagr for his unreal production with the Sharks following a forgettable trade the Bruins made. It still says in this space Jagr did more with a team predicted by most observers to finish 30th. His astonishing play while playing with Straka and Michael Nylander along with a rookie goalie named Henrik Lundqvist changed the culture on Broadway. Even though they were swept by the rival Devils in a first round in which Jagr hurt himself going after Scott Gomez to be far from 100 percent, what he accomplished was unreal.

After being acquired from the Capitals for Anson Carter in ‘04 prior to the lockout, Jagr spent three full seasons in New York City. A place he wanted to play before the Pens exiled him to Washington in a odd deal that never made sense. Jagr was a Caps killer and he wasn’t motivated leading to criticism. They made the postseason once blowing a first round series to the Lightning.

Following time spent in the KHL with Omsk Avangard, a motivated Jagr was splendid in leading the Blueshirts to three straight postseasons. Playing with Czechs Straka, Petr Prucha, Michal Rozsival and Marek Malik, Jagr didn’t miss one regular season game while pacing the team in scoring each year with 123 points, 96 and 71 respectively between ‘06-08.

It’s astonishing to think just how close the ‘06-07 Rangers were to upsetting the Sabres in a very tight second round series. After losing the first two in Buffalo, behind Jagr they rallied to take the next two at MSG to set up a pivotal Game Five in Western New York. In a very close to the vest game in which Lundqvist didn’t blink before Ryan Miller, Straka beat the Buffalo netminder with over two minutes left to give the Blueshirts a 1-0 lead. I remember being unable to contain my excitement. Could they really pull this off?

But just when it seemed they had it, Chris Drury tied it with 7.7 seconds left to force overtime. It was the closest they came. Maxim Afinogenov broke Ranger hearts when his power play goal in sudden death won it. Despite a great effort from Jagr in a wild Game Six, it wasn’t enough as Buffalo advanced to the Conference Finals. I was heartbroken. That’s how much I wanted to see that team win with Jagr and Lundqvist, who is still searching for his first Cup with a mediocre roster about to be broken up. To put it in proper perspective, he’ll turn 36 on March 2. Jagr will be 46 on February 15.

After one final season in ‘07-08 in which he avenged a first round loss to the Devils with a much better performance along with the same Gomez he injured himself against along with the same Drury who did them in the previous year, the Jagr Era ended in disappointment in Round Two. It came against his first team, the Pens, who were now led by a new dominant duo of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Even though they battled hard, they were simply outgunned by a Pittsburgh team that added Marian Hossa in five games with a crushing conclusion. Hossa ended the series in OT. A bit of revenge for being swept the year before with the Thrashers. Remember when Atlanta had hockey again?

When he hit the open market, Jagr wanted to return but still was asking for top dollar. GM Glen Sather decided to go in a different direction. Instead, Jagr kept a promise he made by returning to Russia to play for Omsk Avangard in the KHL. He would spend the next three seasons there.

Which leads me to the horrible tragedy Jagr experienced as a teammate of former Rangers first round pick Alexei Cherepanov. On a night we were getting ready to leave for MSG, I saw the news flash at the bottom of the screen while Dad and Justin watched a special on Mark Messier. I couldn’t believe it. The teenage prospect who rated high as a potential goalscorer died after a game due to chronic myocardial ischemia. A heart condition that Omsk team doctors were unaware of. He passed out on the bench. The trainers tried to revive him. It’s criminal that they didn’t have a working defibrillator. It could’ve saved his life. So could have a ambulance at the arena. They had to wait before the ambulance came in a last ditch effort to rescue him. It’ll be 10 years on October 13 later this year. Only 19.

There’s no sense wondering what Cherepanov could’ve been capable of. I just wish his life could’ve been saved. Life is precious. Imagine what his family has been through since.

What if Jagr didn’t go back to Russia? He came back to the NHL at 39 with the Flyers. He didn’t miss a beat producing 19 goals and 35 assists for 54 points in 73 games on a line with Claude Giroux. He was more playmaker in doing in his former team the Pens in a Flyers first round win that was memorable for the amount of fights and penalty minutes. Jagr registered a goal and seven assists in the 2012 Playoffs. Sadly, it would be his last postseason goal.

Despite reaching the Stanley Cup Final with the Bruins for the first time since he was 20, Jagr was snake bit in that playoff run during 2013. He still was a very effective puck possession player in the offensive zone producing 10 assists. But he couldn’t finish. I don’t know how many goalposts he hit. But it was a lot. Boston would lose a closely fought series to Chicago in gut wrenching fashion. The Blackhawks stunned the Bruins by tying and scoring the Stanley Cup clincher in the late stages of Game Six. It was astonishing.

Following Boston, he spent time with the Devils, Panthers and Flames. The ageless wonder still amazed crowds with his fitness. Always possessing a strong work ethic along with a winning personality (have you ever seen a better interview for hockey), he still had enough left to pace the Devils and Panthers in scoring.

In ‘13-14, Jagr got to team with Brodeur as the two 40-something legends had a lot of fun together even though the team missed the playoffs. At 42, Jagr totaled 24 goals, 43 assists and 67 points in a full 82. His play was still at a high level. The following year, with his role decreasing, he was traded to the Panthers. He proved the Devils wrong by again discovering the fountain of youth. Taking Sasha Barkov under his wing along with Jonathan Huberdeau, they formed a superb line. In ‘15-16, Jagr paced the Cats in points with 66 (27-39-66) points to lead them to the playoffs. But after winning the Atlantic Division, they were upset by the Islanders in a closely fought first round in six games. Jagr had only two helpers.

After falling to 16 goals and 30 assists for 46 points in ‘16-17, Jagr wasn’t brought back by Florida. They made a lot of changes which haven’t panned out, also letting Jonathan Marchessault go along with Reilly Smith to the Vegas Golden Knights. If only Jagr had wound up there instead of Calgary.

It never worked out. Despite ranking third all-time in games played (1,733) trailing only Mark Messier and Gordie Howe,  third all-time in goals (766) behind Wayne Gretzky and Howe and sitting second all-time in points (1,921) behind the Great One, it looks over.

With Jagr clearing waivers and being assigned to hometown Kladno of the Czech Republic, he will go home and play the rest of the season before his biggest fans. As much as I love him along with countless others, just imagine the excitement for his own country. One more time to see the legendary No. 68 lace them up in the same place he started his brilliant hockey career as a 16-year old. It’s amazing that 40 years later, he’s still playing.

For how long? No one knows. Nobody loves the game more than Jagr. When I think of hockey, I am reminded of him with his classic mullet flowing as he left us breathless with his skating, dekes, toe drags, sweet finishes and scintillating passes. A prideful man with a flamboyant personality that really shined through in his rebirth as a Ranger and was again on display for Devil fans to admire. He’s the opposite of boring. If only there were more Jagrs. We had the Traveling Jagrs who he posed for a photo op with with the Flames. He always leaves you with a smile and laugh. That’s who he is. He made The Traveling Jagrs night.

It’s hard to write this because I don’t want it to end this way. Maybe it’s selfish. But 22 games, one goal against Detroit and six assists is not how I envisioned it. We never do. We want the greatest players to go out on top. It’s so rare in sport. It could happen in tennis with Roger Federer, who just won his record 20th grand slam in Australia. Michael Jordan could’ve gone out that way with his steal and final shot beating Utah for the Bulls sixth NBA championship. But he came out of retirement with Washington. Even Lemieux returned. For a memorable year during ‘00-01, he was unbelievable with Jagr in what amounted to No. 68’s final run with the Pens. A lopsided Conference Final loss to the Devils. Lemieux stuck around and injuries again forced him to hang it up. Brett Hull hung around too long and cried when he called it a career with the Coyotes.

There’s no easy way to see our heroes go out. So I’ll leave you with this. Let’s appreciate greatness. Jaromir Jagr will forever be etched in hockey lore. The greatest European to ever play the game and a all-time great.

If this is it, thank you from the bottom of my heart. I’m so glad I got to see you play live for the Rangers. I wish you could’ve come back one more time.

Thank You Jagr 68!

 

A Longtime Fan and proud owner of a ‘99 home white Pens jersey,

Derek Felix, New York Puck

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Even the wins are ugly

By show of hands, how many people stayed up late to watch the game Thursday night in San Jose? Not everyone can due to their schedule. But quite a few including me waited for the late 10:37 PM puck drop and got less sleep.

At least the Rangers managed to win the final game of a ugly four-game road trip to salvage two points with a ugly 6-5 victory over the Sharks. It doesn’t matter where they are in the standings. As it relates to the playoff race, they stand 25-20-5 with 55 points just on the outside looking in at second wildcard Philadelphia.

By now, we know that there’s so much parity in the Metropolitan Division that just a single win can move you up even if you’ve been losing consistently. The Flyers put together a good stretch to reach third in the division with 56 points but a loss in regulation combined with victories by the Blue Jackets and Penguins put them fifth in the Metro behind the slumping Devils and back into the second wildcard. Two total points separate second place from seventh with the Rangers and Islanders each having 55 points through 50 games at the All-Star break. The Islanders won in Vegas 2-1 hanging on to deal the Golden Knights only their third home loss.

What does it all mean? Basically, any of the remaining seven teams including the Hurricanes, who got to 52 with a badly needed victory, can can finish anywhere in the division. That’s assuming the Capitals continue to play well. They’re in first place with 63 points. Six up on Columbus and Pittsburgh. Seven on the Devils and Flyers. Eight ahead of the Rangers and Islanders and 11 clear of the Canes.

The Metro is a competitive division not unlike the Central out West where six total points separate first place Winnipeg from first wildcard Dallas. The second wildcard is up for grabs with the Sharks at 59 points leading a variety of contenders ranging from the Flames, Avalanche, Kings, Wild and Ducks with the Blackhawks lurking behind. Discounting the awful Atlantic Division in the East where the Lightning, Bruins and Maple Leafs appear locked in, the other three divisions are very competitive. A lot can happen between next Tuesday, January 30 when the season resumes and its conclusion in April.

When it comes down to it, the Rangers are mediocre. They continue to make mistakes even in wins like last night. Similar to how they outshot and outplayed Anaheim in a 6-3 loss, they withstood some hideous errors to hold off San Jose for a badly needed win. And that’s the problem.

The first period was similar to the other night. In his return, Kevin Hayes scored a nice goal on a rare slap shot from J.T. Miller to put the Rangers up early. But the Sharks came right back with two consecutive goals from Barclay Goodrow and Logan Couture to steer in front. Jesper Fast finished off a Michael Grabner feed in front to end a long goal drought that tied it up before the period ended. It was a rare assist for Grabner, whose Cy Young campaign is now 21-5.

The crazy aspect is that for a second straight game, they outshot their opponent in the first period (12-7). But only were tied due to more defensive breakdowns. Watching Brendan Smith try to defend has become comical. On one San Jose goal, he stopped skating due to a missed interference call that knocked down Tony DeAngelo. In the process, he lost his man in front.

The Rangers offense was reignited by Hayes’ return. He was really strong in all facets. Centering a second line with a rejuvenated Miller and Mats Zuccarello, they dominated. Hayes also made a nice defensive play before setting up captain Ryan McDonagh for his long overdue first goal of the season. He would score again on the power play from Pavel Buchnevich to put the Blueshirts ahead for good. It was a big night for the captain, who also defended well.

In hockey, momentum is a strange thing. The Sharks had it when Couture notched his second of the game to lead 3-2. But lost it on two McDonagh goals followed by a shorthanded goal from Brady Skjei to fall behind 5-3 after two periods.

Anyone who’s a fan of this team knew the game wasn’t over. Not the way the Rangers play. They went into a cocoon in the third. The prevent defense never works. It’s the same for football. They backed off. So when Marc-Edouard Vlasic cut it to 5-4, it wasn’t shocking. Maybe the most surprising aspect was the Rangers got away with it. Ondrej Pavelec, who started poorly, made a few gigantic saves including a point blank robbery. He didn’t take any credit for the one-goal win.

Five wasn’t enough. A great play by Zuccarello where he went around the net and found Miller open for a big goal with 1:50 left in regulation actually proved to be the game-winner. Miller redeemed himself with a goal and two assists following his benching. It was a good response.

In typical Ranger fashion, the game wasn’t over. Tomas Hertl was credited with his 14th when his shot banked perfectly off Peter Holland by Pavelec with less than 50 seconds remaining.

The Rangers exhaled when the buzzer sounded. So, they got a rare road victory. Only their eighth in 22 games away from MSG. The 8-12-2 record is indicative of a team that struggles on the road unlike past years. With still 19 left compared to 13 at home, it’s going to be a challenge.

Which leaves us with the same conclusion. This team isn’t good enough to contend. They must sell by February 26. If they don’t, they’re fooling themselves. Don’t let the parity fool you.

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Rangers Miserable Road Tour Almost Complete

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Rick Nash did his part scoring twice but the Rangers continue to struggle on the road. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy NY Daily News. 

After losing to the Avalanche and Kings with the latter leaving a all too familiar bad taste, the Rangers continued their miserable road tour last night with a third straight loss. This time, shots weren’t a problem. They had over 40 but Henrik Lundqvist was off from the beginning. It resulted in a ugly 6-3 defeat to the Ducks.

While the effort was better than the incomplete Groundhog Day at Staples Center, they couldn’t stop Anaheim from scoring. They took advantage of every mistake while also catching Lundqvist on a rare off night. He was chased for three goals on seven shots before Ondrej Pavelec relieved him before the end of the first period. Excuse Lundqvist. He’s played a lot of hockey.

Maybe we should’ve seen it coming. It was his 41st start of the season. He’s appeared in 42 of the Rangers’ 49 games. Occasionally, the 35-year old’s workload can be overwhelming. A look at how the team plays defensively is reason enough for him to finally cave in.

The crazy part is the Rangers actually played a good first period. They controlled much of the action outshooting the Ducks 18-8 and outchancing them. It didn’t matter. They play so loose that fundamental mistakes are common. Four led to Ducks goals. A wide shot allowed Anaheim to get a odd man rush. On it, Ryan McDonagh took the pass away giving Lundqvist a clear path shot. He was unable to stop J.T. Brown from the circle. He went high glove for the game’s first goal.

Rick Nash scored the first of two when he beat John Gibson in front for a power play goal. But before you could breathe, another breakdown allowed Anaheim to regain the lead when Corey Perry got behind Nick Holden and beat Lundqvist for a power play goal. It wasn’t the best shot. His change up went through Lundqvist. A save he normally comes up with. It was obvious that he didn’t have it.

After Nash got his second of the period to tie it at two, then came another Ducks reply. Some more careless defense resulted in Andrew Cogliano using Brady Skjei as a screen to beat Lundqvist short side top. He was off his angle and looked visibly frustrated. At that point, Alain Vigneault went to Pavelec. In hindsight, maybe he would’ve been better off starting him. But it’s a desperate situation. Especially when they keep losing while teams around them for the most part, don’t take advantage.

It took this long for the Pens to leapfrog them for the second wildcard. They posted a win against Carolina for points 54 and 55. Two more than the Blueshirts and confusing Islanders. The Flyers won again and are now up to third in the Metro Division with 56 points. A identical amount to the fading Devils, who remain second despite their issues and the Boston Screw Job (see Hasan’s post). The puzzling Blue Jackets are in the first wildcard with 55 points. They’ve played two fewer games than Pittsburgh, who have four more ROW. Got all that?

Late in the first on a power play, a huge mistake by J.T. Miller proved costly. Adam Henrique scored a shorthanded goal with 1:22 left. The former Devil and noted Ranger killer did it again. Miller made a absolutely awful play. While in the neutral zone, he tried a back pass to no one except for the dangerous Ryan Getzlaf. If I didn’t know any better, he thought the Ducks captain was on his side. It was brutal. Getzlaf got the puck to Henrique for a one-on-one with Pavelec. Henrique patiently outwaited Pavelec tucking in a forehand for what proved to be the game-deciding goal.

I knew Miller would be benched. It was such a boneheaded play by a player who’s in his sixth year already. It’s his fourth full season. Still just 24 (turns 25 on 3/14), it’s no excuse. Simply put, he should know better. After a breakthrough ‘16-17 in which he matched  career best in goals (22) and established new career highs in assists (34) and points (56), he’s been a enigma much like the team. He commits too many turnovers. The problem is he doesn’t shoot the puck enough and overpasses. That style is indicative of how the Rangers play. Refusing to take open shots. Too many passes can result in sloppy turnovers which fuel the opposition’s transition. There’s a reason this team ranks dead last in Corsi shot differential.

Miller’s miscue drew the ire of Vigneault. A player who’s always been jerked around by the much maligned coach whose time could be running out, he never took another shift. That’s less than five minutes of ice-time for what was their second center minus Kevin Hayes. In making a example out of Miller, Vigneault cut down his forwards to 11 for the remaining two periods. If that wasn’t enough, for reasons only known to him, he also sat Jimmy Vesey for almost the entire third except for a power play. The second-year forward who brings a strong work ethic got the Pavel Buchnevich treatment. Why? I have no clue. But basically cutting down to 10 forwards in a game you needed made no sense.

That’s Vigneault. A coach who plays favorites. Even though he’s coached differently by making a prime example of Brendan Smith for his inconsistent play and shortened the bench for third periods by double shifting his top players, this was mind numbing. When Peter Holland is getting major minutes along with David Desharnais as your other center options aside from Mika Zibanejad, who had a good night, it is not complementary.

I am not understanding how Michael Grabner wound up with less ice-time than Holland. Grabner is only their top goalscorer. He scored the team’s second shorthanded goal of the year when he took a Zibanejad pass and beat Gibson for his 21st. He has been the team’s best skater. It’s not even close. Nobody puts out more effort each shift than the two-way dependable, speedy Austrian who is going to make it a hard decision for GM Jeff Gorton at the February 26 trade deadline. I don’t see why he continues to be underutilized on the fourth line. How is he not a top nine forward? With Hayes and Chris Kreider out, it’s a joke. He is one of the few finishers they got. With Nash getting it together with a third two-goal game this month raising his total to 15, he and Grabner are the only wingers who think shot. Zibanejad has 14 in 40 games as the number one center. He also shoots the puck.

Most of their players are playmakers. That includes the gifted Buchnevich, who’s definitely picked it up with five points (2-3-5) over his last five games. Not coincidentally, it’s come with the 22-year old Russian back on the top line with Zibanejad, who he has chemistry with. He is a superb skater who likes to hold onto the puck and use his speed to find open ice. As evidenced by his 13 goals and 18 assists, he is more passer than shooter. His offensive skill makes him a good power play threat where he gets plenty of time on the top unit. While much has been made of his even strength time, Buchnevich is getting close to 15 minutes on average while continuing to improve.

I wish I could understand Vigneault’s mishandling of Vesey. While not as talented, the former Harvard star is a north/south player who goes to the dirty areas in front of the net. He is stronger than Buchnevich and is willing to battle players. Take the chaos that ensued with the Kings. He was right in the middle of it. The 10 goals and seven helpers don’t tell the whole story. He hasn’t had a defined role. It’s hard for a young player to develop properly when they’re bounced around. He can’t be on the fourth line or benched with two of the club’s top nine out. It’s inexplicable.

That is the season in a nutshell. One that’s angered a loyal fan base who don’t like the way this roster plays. Very few players are consistent including leading scorer Mats Zuccarello. A terrific Blueshirt who never backs down having led the team in scoring two years running. But his eight goals at this juncture aren’t enough. The 27 assists and 35 points are right in line with what he’s produced. It’s just that he’s become one dimensional. If he thought shot more, it would help change the mentality. A locker room leader, he is signed through 2019. If they continue to go in the wrong direction, the Rangers could consider trading him. Just don’t expect it until the summer at the soonest. Ditto McDonagh, who will command a lot on the open market when his deal expires the following year.

Even though they didn’t play as badly as the final score indicated, the Rangers did enough to lose. In the past, they were the opposite. A team who found a way. But a more flawed roster minus key players including Kevin Shattenkirk is finding it hard to put together consistent efforts.

On most nights, it’s the grinders who are noticeable. Guys like Paul Carey, Jesper Fast and Marc Staal. Along with a few notable exceptions, these are the skaters who bring it. You know what you’re going to get from Lundqvist. McDonagh certainly lays it out there too even though he’s definitely not the same player before the injuries. Brady Skjei remains a work in progress who hasn’t taken that next step. Why is that when there are there are three experienced NHL coaches on the bench?

These lingering questions along with the lineup tinkering now out of necessity make it seem like a easy decision. The organization must be sellers next month. Even if that means asking Nash to make a list of teams he’d accept a trade to. The same for Nick Holden, who remains miscast on the top pair. As for Grabner, I would love to keep him. But they’d be crazy not to explore the market. He can always come back if he likes playing here. But will it be a different coaching staff by July? Only time shall tell. Desharnais can also fetch something back even if it’s a late round pick.

With 2017 first round picks Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil developing in Hartford along with Ryan Graves and Neal Pionk, the future is in focus. If they fall out of the race, then maybe you give one of those kids a look. They should remain patient until then.

Encouraging has been the improvement from Tony DeAngelo. He recorded his second assist since returning on Tuesday. Now receiving around 16 minutes including power play time, he’s looked more comfortable skating the puck out and moving it. His defense also has been solid thus far. An area that will be essential to his development. When Gorton dealt Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta at last year’s NHL Draft for DeAngelo and the seventh overall pick which became Andersson, it was with the future in mind.

Keeping perspective during this tough time as a fan is key. Losses like yesterday and Sunday serve as a reminder. They’re not good. Just like many around them. It’s not about this year.

When they visit San Jose tomorrow, they can go 0-for-4 before the All-Star break. As ugly as it would be, is it really the worst thing? Not when the writing is on the wall and has been for a while.

 

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Devils’ season on the verge of disintegrating

Life is like sports in a lot of ways.  Sometimes life just sucks.  Sometimes sports just suck.  This last month has been the latter as a Devil fan (and really most of the last year adding in the Mets and Jets).  Everything about this month has sucked, between the mounting injuries, the unprofessionalism of the refs and the league against us, overrated goaltending, horrible defense and the return of the 2014-ish Devils that could do everything BUT put the puck in the net.  Guess longtime readers can tell from the YT clip that now this is a time to panic as a Devil fan.  Loved WARGAMES the movie and this is DEFCON 1 territory right here.  Everything that can go wrong has as the team’s in full collapse mode and now back on the bubble of a playoff spot.

I don’t even really want to write anything, I’m that disillusioned over the last three games in particular, although this bad streak of the Devils goes back before that.  Ironically enough, with the first hideous out of nowhere goal reversal against the Devils against the Sabres way back in late December that helped torpedo our five-game winning streak and started this 2-6-3 cycle of death.  I don’t want to continually harp on the refs and the league cause god knows this team’s done enough to shoot itself in the foot during this stretch too.  Our no-shows against the Flyers and Wings haven’t helped matters at all and I was ticked off leaving the Rock last night for the first time in weeks since the aformentioned Sabres game which started this all.  But let’s be honest, leaving sore loserdom out of it, this eleven game stretch should be a mediocre slump that’s been artificially turned into a death spiral.

I don’t want to re-adjudicate the offside calls early in this streak, the missed too many men on the ice against the Caps or anything else before tonight cause tonight threw more than enough material to send me to the loony bin.  Going to Boston who’s only the hottest team in the NHL at 12-0-4 in its last sixteen games was gonna be a tall order under the best of circumstances, but with the team fighting a horrible slump and Taylor Hall being out for the second straight game with a hand injury?  It would almost have been a bonus to get anything out of tonight’s game, except for the fact the team already blew up what little momentum it got from winning two in a row against the Isles and Caps with less than stellar efforts against the Flyers and Wings.  Yet, it was the Devils who came out strong in this one – buoyed by an impromptu team meeting after the hideous 3-0 loss against Petr Mrazek and his goalposts.  Even after dominating the first period though, they still couldn’t dent the impentrable wall that is the scoreboard.

Until finally in the second period, Miles Wood struck and seemingly relieved a ton of pressure on the team.  Despite a laughingly fluky deflection from Riley Nash that took an evil swerve and tied the game, the Devils still kept coming and took the lead a couple minutes later with a Damon Severson one-timer.  At 2-1 and playing well things looked pretty decent for once.   Then…IT happened, a double-barreled ref punch of missing an obvious boarding that could have injured Nico Hischier, and to make a bad situation worse dinged Miles Wood for retaliating and also giving him a SECOND penalty on the same play, making it a phantom double minor.  It almost made it worse that the refs actually admitted their mistake to Wood later on.

Yeah you guys can take your apology and shove it.  That double minor (and a subsequent penalty on Marcus Johansson) completely changed the game, giving the Bruins an extended 5-on-3 where they not only scored but also caused goaltender Cory Schnieder to get injured stretching out to try to make a desperation stop.  Things went from maddening to comical when there was an extended delay after the tying goal, both because the supposed best refs in the world couldn’t figure out what penalty to take off the board after the goal, and because the clock at TD Garden somehow kept going up on the penalty clock instead of down.  A mechanical mistake is one thing but NHL refs should know how to allocate penalty time.  It shouldn’t be too much to expect a competent, fairly officiated game but this is par for the course in the NHL.

Cory’s injury had far reaching effects, for even after the Devils somehow stabilized the game and looked like they were going into the locker room tied, stupidity took over in the final minute of the second with a Sami Vatanen shot that went fifty feet wide, a horrendous Ben Lovejoy pinch leading to a two-on-one, and Cory getting abused by Brad Marchand who deked our great goalie out of his skates despite only having the near part of the net to work with.  Finally after that goal Cory was taken out, seemingly a shot too late as it turned out.  I was so disillusioned by this point I barely paid attention in the third period, knowing what was going to happen once we went behind, with everything else going on.

Once again Ken Appelby did a fine job in relief and kept the team in the game (what a novel concept, goalies keeping the team in the game as opposed to costing them the game), but you just knew the Devils weren’t scoring.  Not when Severson of all people got a breakaway chance and took a pathetically weak wrist shot from far out.  Not when the refs finally deigned to give the Devils a power play late in the third period and they failed to convert.  Not when the ghost of Kyle Palmieri got stoned one last time with under twenty seconds left by Tuukka Rask.  And certainly not when the refs conveniently missed a post-whistle elbow from Marchand on Johansson directly in front of them during the aformentioned power play that not only injured the Devils forward but should have been a late 5-on-3.

But that’s okay cause the refs were sorry they called a phantom penalty on Wood.  Yeah they sure looked sorry conveniently missing that one and completely changing yet another hockey game.  It’s one thing to be incompetent but this continual one-sided reffing is smelling unprofessional and I’ve flat had it with everything – with the team, the refs, the hockey gods.  A once great season is now threatening to disintegrate, and once again the Devils look like pretenders – just like 2013 and 2015 when they had unexpected strong starts and died down the stretch.  Even last year they got off 9-3-3 and died.  With one more game before the All-Star break I’m now in a faux Jim Mora type mood.  Only instead of hoping for one lousy win I’m hoping for one lousy game where our key players can avoid the injury bug, and one lousy game where I’m not cursing out the unprofessionalism of this clown show of a league.

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Rangers Week In Review: Inconsistency and Mediocrity leads to one conclusion

Jimmy Vesey

Jimmy Vesey celebrates a goal in a 4-2 loss to the Kings. Another game that reminded of Groundhog Day for the Rangers in LA. The time is right for them to sell. AP Photo via Getty Images

Since my last post, the Rangers have played four games winning the first two and losing the last two. That included tonight’s latest fiasco at Staples Center against their kryptonite the LA Kings. A all too predictable and typical incomplete effort in a 4-2 loss in Hollywood.

The script was the same old one we’ve seen in our nightmares like those three games in the 2014 Stanley Cup Final. Was that only four years ago? It feels like 40 since that first Alain Vigneault coached team made that run taking us on a wild roller coaster ride which left us wanting more. If only the 2015 roster had remembered to score on home ice against the Lightning in Games 5 and 7. Ouch. It still hurts. Maybe because it was at that point that I knew the run was over. I wish I could say the same for management.

When it comes down to it, coming that close with Henrik Lundqvist twice is reason enough for why they kept going for it. Even if some of former architect Glen Sather’s chess moves weren’t the best over the long haul. He overpaid for Martin St. Louis with Ryan Callahan and those draft picks going to Tampa. But without St. Louis, there’s no Stanley Cup Final or dramatic comeback from 3-1 down to finally beat the Pens. Ask Marty’s teammates about his impact. It’s a shame it didn’t result in the franchise’s first Cup since 1994.

The same way it stinks that Slats again went all in for Keith Yandle at the 2015 trade deadline by giving up Anthony Duclair and more high draft picks but didn’t get the end result. I can’t kill the move because at the time, it was the right one. They were a win now team and Yandle nearly helped them get back. It didn’t end well with the disappointing conclusion to eventual champ Pittsburgh in the 2016 first round.

So much has changed in today’s NHL. The more successful you are in the salary cap era, the more challenging it is to keep rosters together. It’s impossible. That’s why what the Blackhawks have accomplished and now the Penguins is pretty remarkable. Throw in the bleeping Kings. A team loathed by both Devils and Rangers fans for the obvious reason.

When you get there, you gotta win. The post lockout Lundqvist Era has been one of the most successful in Rangers history. They’ve made the postseason every year except one and that came down to a stinking shootout. Let’s just say Olli Jokinen will always invoke hatred.

It’s frustrating that at the ripe old age of 35 and soon to be 36 playing some of his finest hockey on a flawed team, Lundqvist is further away than he’s ever been from winning that Cup. A look at the affable Swede following losses during the MSG postgame is always painful and leaving me numb. The man wants to win so badly. Even a .924 save percentage in a unbelievable bounce back season where he’s started so many games and faced so many shots isn’t enough to guarantee anything. If I were Lundqvist after that awful second period in which undisciplined penalties led to three straight Kings power play goals, I would’ve slammed my stick and skated off the ice.

That’s how some of his teammates played. Where was Mika Zibanejad? He was invisible against a hard nosed physical opponent that doesn’t give you much. Zibanejad is the top center and if he is not giving them anything, the first line is a total waste. Pavel Buchnevich tried because he always skates hard but he lost some battles that led to easy LA clears which hurt Rangers power plays. He’s a unique talent who needs to get stronger. Tonight wasn’t one of his better ones. He’s been better lately with a three-game point streak ending. Rick Nash was skating hard but at one point, he went one on four right into the teeth of the Kings who were waiting at their blueline for a easy turnover. Frustrating. It’s hard to kill Nash when he finally got going with a pair of two-goal games this past week. That will boost his value for the upcoming Feb. 26 trade deadline.

How to summarize this team? Annoying. They leave you scratching your head. The lack of consistency and lack of shots along with the lapses in concentration. From game to game to period to period, you don’t know what you’re gonna get. And that is a mediocre team that is like many in the Metro Division and weak Eastern Conference. Outside of the Lightning, Caps and Bruins, no one has impressed me. All the other teams still in it which basically is the rest of the Metro and the Maple Leafs are flawed. Never has there been so much parity. I’m sure Gary Bettman loves it. Those three point games only serve to remind fans how backwards things have become.

The Rangers went from easily handling the Flyers in a rare laugher 5-1 at home to edging the abysmal Sabres 4-3 to start the week with promise. But those are beatable teams who aren’t as good. I could care less if the Flyers continue their Jekyll & Hyde act beating the Devils and surprising the Caps to move into the first wildcard a point ahead of the Rangers, who remain in the second position due to less games played than the Pens. They don’t have consistent goaltending or defense. Neither do the high scoring Islanders.

So, when they left for a four-game road trip that started in Colorado with the trio of California teams afterwards with the stop in Tinsel Town Sunday night, it reaffirmed what I’ve thought for a while. The Avalanche won for the ninth straight time Saturday afternoon by a count of 3-1.  They did it with the amazing talent of Nate MacKinnon sniping one past Lundqvist and Erik Johnson tipping one home in front on a blown Rangers coverage and then defended well while making it easy for Jonathan Bernier to win again. The Blueshirts only scored once with Buchnevich converting a power play goal on a nice set piece from Mats Zuccarello. They did nothing five-on-five. Seeing J.T. Miller try a low percentage pass across to nobody with time winding down that resulted in Mikko Rantanen’s empty netter with less than a second left was exasperating. What was he thinking?

And that’s the thing that hits home. This is how they play under Vigneault. The East/West style is pretty to watch when it works. But it’s downright ugly when opponents are dialed in and ready for the all too predictable pass, pass, pass. That thought process is why they can’t consistently score goals anymore or win daily. When you face better competition, they figure it out.

Look how much Colorado improved since getting rid of Matt Duchene. MacKinnon is dominating. He’s second in scoring centering a lethal line with Gabriel Landeskog and Rantanen. They have a much improved defense led by a healthy Johnson, who is paired with former Sabre Nikita Zadorov. Johnson is having a good year while Zadorov has improved. He hits everyone and has steadied the blueline that’s missing Tyson Barrie. Samuel Girard came over from Nashville in the three team deal for Duchene also involving Kyle Turris. With young forwards such as Alexander Kerfoot, J.T. Compher and Tyson Jost, the Avs are set up well. They’re ahead of schedule in a wildcard with the best division in hockey all in the mix.

Here’s the point I’m driving home. If the Rangers organization are smart and I have no idea what the the thinking is, they’ll do the right thing and sell. Given the current state of the team with Chris Kreider out along with Kevin Shattenkirk, who somehow played with a meniscus tear in his right knee in Year 1, it makes plenty of sense. Kevin Hayes remained out while Marc Staal and Michael Grabner returned last night.

As hard as it is to give up on the season when Lundqvist deserves better, it’s the better for the long term. With them deciding to bring Lias Andersson over to play for Hartford and learn the North American style of pro hockey like Filip Chytil, the future is essential to the franchise. Like the classic Bob Dylan folk song at the end of The Wanderers, “Times, They Are A Changin’.”

When you have veterans such as Brendan Smith continuing to baffle with a combination of inconsistent and undisciplined play like his foolish extra roughing minor for a fight at the Wild conclusion of the first period with Adrian Kempe, it’s hard to be enthusiastic. Smith may have hated the hit he took but his penalty only provided the spark a fired up Kings team needed after a mostly lethargic first that saw Desharnais and Jimmy Vesey put the Rangers up two. They did what they do best scoring three on the power play with traffic in front of Lundqvist, who must’ve felt helpless. It was awful. Then the Kings closed off the middle making life easier on Jonathan Quick.

When your top line no shows and your best players are Vesey, Vinni Lettieri, Paul Carey and Desharnais along with Tony DeAngelo, it’s hard to win. There were far too many passengers in a game Miller said was important. He gave a better effort too but there wasn’t enough want from the guys in the white with red and blue. They didn’t battle hard enough. So, they get another incomplete.

With stops in Anaheim and San Jose this week, it won’t get any easier. Lose those and it should really sink in about what direction they need to go.

There are players who can help other contenders if they choose to go that route. Nash’s contract expires along with leading goalscorer Michael Grabner with the latter being a guy I’d like to keep in the right situation. He’s put together consecutive 20-goal seasons fitting Vigneault’s transition system perfectly. Grabner does so much well. He’s got great defensive instincts and lightning speed and is finishing. He will get more than double his current salary ($1.3 million). If I’m the GM, I inform him about possibly trading him and then ask if he wants to come back July 1. Look no further than the Yankees, who got a unreal return for Aroldis Chapman. He helped the Cubs finally win a World Series and then re-signed with the Yanks.

Nick Holden is also cheap and will be gone this summer. While he maybe miscast on the top pair, he can be more serviceable as a second or third pair D on another team. For all the criticism he takes, he gave the Rangers a good season last year providing offense. He isn’t good defensively and is used too much. But effort is never a question. I wish I could say the same for Smith, who after signing his four-year contract came into camp out of shape and stopped skating following a giveaway that led to a Avalanche breakaway. A hustling Holden forced a miss.

The real dilemma is what to do with Zuccarello and Ryan McDonagh. With recent talk on Hockey Night In Canada from Elliotte Friedman mentioning that the Rangers would listen to offers on both key players whose deals expire next year, I’m most curious to see how serious they are about a rebuild.

Do they want to give McDonagh a huge contract when his play has clearly gone down from the high level he was at in 2014? Injuries have played a role. He played on one foot against Tampa in 2015. If they trade him, what kind of package could they get? He certainly would attract a lot of interest. Even if he’s not that shutdown guy anymore, you can’t deny his skating and the passing which has still produced 22 assists. He hasn’t had a top partner. Had Sather not erred letting Anton Stralman go and replacing him with Dan Boyle, that could’ve been a formidable top pair. He chose poorly.

As for Zuccarello, nobody plays with more passion than the pint sized Norwegian with the enormous heart. He’s led them in scoring two years running and leads them again. At a $4.5 million AAV, he’s a bargain. If only he shot more. Zuccarello never backs down from anyone. It’s why he’s such a fan favorite and has won the Steven McDonald Award. He’s loved for his effort and honesty. When he’s bad, he lets you know.

The thing is Zuccarello is going to command a lot on the open market in a year. It could be around $7 million. Yikes. As much as I love him, I think the time is right to make a change. It would be heartbreaking to see him go. The same way I felt about Callahan and more recently, Derek Stepan.

Unfortunately, these are the hard decisions that must be made. The Rangers are at a crossroads. It’s time for a change in philosophy.

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Two steps forward, one step back

After finally ending a six-game skid with a pair of big division wins earlier this week, the Devils regressed in another weekend beatdown at the hands of the Flyers, who are now 2-0 against their NJ rivals inside of a week.  Worse, neither game was really close as the Flyers outscored the Devils by a combined 8-3 in the two losses (not including Drew Stafford’s laughable consolation goal down 5-2 with under a minute remaining at the Rock last Sunday).  I was going to watch today’s afternoon matinee against the Flyers on tape delay this evening, but peeked at the score early and saw it was 3-0 in the first period and Keith Kinkaid was already pulled – due to injury as it turned out though ironically after a poor outing Kinkaid might have been given the hook anyway when he got hurt on the third goal allowed.  Needless to say I’m not going to bother watching this one over.

Allegedly the Devils played better over the final two periods without the goals to show for it, and Appelby even showed a little something in what literally turned out to be an emergency appearance with Cory Schneider laid up for a week and counting due to illness, and now Kinkaid on the shelf.  Even third-stringer Eddie Lack is on the shelf for Binghamton, so Appelby may very well draw a critical start at home Monday against the Red Wings, before the team winds up making a tough trip to Boston on a back-to-back, then comes back home Thursday to play a good Predators team.

Honestly I haven’t watched any game this week – Saturday and Thursday I was busy, while Tuesday I was too teed off at the beatdown against the Flyers Saturday extending our losing streak to six games and vowed not to watch till they got off the schneid.  And well today, what’s the point?  I will be at Monday’s game, sadly I almost forgot they had a home game since it’s the only one I’ll be able to go to this month.  I still haven’t completely got the sour taste of my last trip to the Rock out of my mouth yet (the terrible Sabre loss that commenced the losing streak).

I can’t even complain after the two wins this week as much as I’m puzzled as to why today happened.  After all on Thursday they played very well against a fine Caps team – granted one that was coming off their bye week and didn’t get a practice in – getting a 3-1 lead, then after blowing yet another two-goal lead late they still managed to win in OT in electrifying fashion when Taylor Hall caused a turnover and scored on a breakaway.  In fact three of our goals – Stafford, Hall and Miles Wood – all came on breakaways against a Caps team clearly out of sync.  Still, wins are wins and getting revenge on the Isles in Brooklyn followed by beating the division leaders at home should have been enough to power another surge.

Instead the team came out flat for the second time in a week against the Flyers, while Kinkaid after one good game and one game where the team survived him showed why he’s been a poor backup this season in spite of his W-L record allowing another poor early goal that set the tone.  He’s a good kid, his emoji recaps are fun but he just has not been a good goaltender this year.  If Lack weren’t hurt I’d be advocating giving him some games but we might literally be down to our fourth string goalie on Monday.  Appelby did actually play well by all accounts today in his NHL debut but there’s also something to be said for coming in with no pressure and knowing beforehand you’re getting your first NHL start.

In summation things aren’t great right now but they’re better than they could be all things considered given our recent struggles (2-4-3 in the last nine games), given some of the other Metro bubble teams are falling off too.  True, our eight or nine point lead on a playoff spot is down to three, but after the bye we still have multiple games in hand on our competition.  So maybe it’s closer to a six-point lead, but still this team needs to keep its foot on the gas pedal and not have letdown games like this afternoon or objects in the mirror really will be closer than they appear.

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With losing streak at three, desperate Blueshirts recall Peter Holland and send down Boo Nieves

Much has been made of Alain Vigneault’s lineups during a up and down season. With the Rangers in a slump having dropped three in a row in bad fashion, he’s now desperate enough to turn to Peter Holland.

Acquired from Montreal for Adam Cracknell, Holland is on his fifth organization. A former Anaheim first round pick in 2009, the 27-year old center was recalled from Hartford. In 16 games, he totaled five goals and nine assists. With him up, Boo Nieves was sent down. Nieves has a goal and eight assists in 29 games for the Blueshirts. He was used primarily as the fourth line center playing mostly with Paul Carey and whoever Vigneault stuck with them.

You never know what he’s thinking. Conventional wisdom went out a long time ago. In 44 games which feels like double due to all of his different line combinations and D pairs, we’ve seen everything. Pavel Buchnevich has gone from top line status to the fourth and third line. Jesper Fast went from secondary player to the first line. I can’t follow what Vigneault does anymore. Confusing isn’t even the word.

Make no mistake. This isn’t all on the coach. The players deserve plenty of blame along with the general manager. With a couple of notable exceptions including Fast, Michael Grabner, Marc Staal and both Henrik Lundqvist and Ondrej Pavelec, most of the roster has underperformed. So, it’s left a desperate coach with no choice.

When they host old nemesis Philadelphia tonight, they’ll do so minus Kevin Hayes and probably Ryan McDonagh, who each could will miss their second straight game with injuries. At 22-17-5 with 49 points, they find themselves one point behind the Islanders for the second wildcard. Having not won in regulation since Dec. 19 against Anaheim, they have to get out of this with a more consistent effort. If not, heads will roll and the Rangers will become sellers at the February 26 trade deadline.

All one has to do is listen to Lundqvist after each loss in the Rangers locker room. He’s running out of explanations. They all say the right thing but actions speak louder than words. Let their play do the talking.

What should be expected from a team that can’t put together a full 60 minutes and continues to allow 37 shots leaving most of the work on the goalies? They’re facing a team that’s scoring. Sean Couturier now is a breakout star with 25 goals and 45 points while linemates Claude Giroux (14-40-54) and Jake Voracek (8-45-53) have been rejuvenated. They’ll also have to account for defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere. His 32 points (9-23-32) are among the league leaders for D. He is expected to return and pair up with good second-year Russian Ivan Provorov. That gives the Flyers a unique tandem. Something the Rangers lack. Don’t forget pest Wayne Simmonds, who usually scores against us in front.

Here are the Rangers lines. Subject to change at any moment.

So, J.T. Miller moves to center to fill the Hayes void. Maybe it’ll get him going. He’s been invisible lately. Interesting that Vinni Lettieri gets to play with Miller and Mats Zuccarello. Lettieri has a goal and two assists since his recall and has hit at least three goalposts. He could easily have more points. Buchnevich is back with Zibanejad while stone hands Rick Nash gets first dibs. Remember when Nash was brought in as a 40-goal man? I miss those days.

This insistence on using David Desharnais as a third line center is insane. They have no choice. I don’t like Jimmy Vesey on the third unit either. God forbid they reward him and give the kid a look with Zibanejad and Buchnevich. He won’t play enough. Carey has done what’s been asked. But that’s a weak third line. How is our leading goalscorer on the fourth line? Grabner has 19 goals and should be higher. I don’t get it. Holland gets two good players who never take shifts off in Grabner and Fast. Lucky him. But for how long?

It indicates that McDonagh was on the ice. With back spasms, you never know. He’s a game time decision. If he plays, scratch Steven Kampfer. Brendan Smith has to play and they’re not benching Kevin Shattenkirk. At some point, he’ll snap out of it. I’m most curious to see how he performs along with Brady Skjei. They were good earlier this season but have struggled mightily since being reunited. Are they together or apart? I have no idea.

That’s it in a nutshell. The Flyers are hot winning four straight. They’re scoring on the power play and playing well. They’re one point behind the Rangers with 48 having played one less game. Like every other Metro team, it’s right there for them.

How will the Rangers respond to getting outscored 12-4 over the weekend? If they don’t, MSG could get very ugly. I’m sure the “Fire AV” chants are getting warmed up. We’ll see.

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Greiss makes 52 saves to lift Islanders over Canadiens into second wildcard

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John Tavares puts in his own rebound past Carey Price to give the Islanders a 5-4 overtime win at Montreal. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy CTV News Montreal. 

Great goaltending can sometimes be enough to steal games. The Islanders can thank backup goalie Thomas Greiss for their 5-4 overtime win over the Canadiens at Bell Centre on Martin Luther King Day. His 52 saves were enough along with John Tavares’ second goal of the night to move the Isles ahead of the idle Rangers into the second wildcard. They’re up to 50 points in 45 games after winning a third straight time.

The Islanders were able to beat Carey Price five times on only 24 shots to get a wild road win up north. Tavares scored twice and red hot rookie Mathew Barzal continued his torrid pace with three more points (16th goal, two assists) to give him eight in the last two games. He recorded five in a blowout 7-2 win at New York.

They won due to Greiss, who stood on his head throughout to give the Isles a chance. Twice, they blew two-goal leads in the game. But were able to overcome a dominant Habs attack which fired shots from everywhere on Greiss. For the little used backup, he did a great job given the circumstances. With it being the second game in three days with a third in four Tuesday night at home against the Devils, Greiss was needed to rest starter Jaro Halak.

Before the game was seven minutes old, Barzal had set up Anthony Beauvillier for a goal 1:24 in and beat Price high glove at 6:29 for a 2-0 lead. The emerging leading candidate for the Calder is up to 47 points in 45 games. He is ahead of Canucks sniper Brock Boeser and Boston defenseman Charlie McAvoy.

But before the first period was out, the Habs came back to tie it on goals from Nicolas Deslauriers and Paul Byron 4:09 apart. The Habs outshot the Isles 13-7 in the period.

The second saw the Islanders get only six shots. However, they made the most of their opportunities thanks to goals from Adam Pelech and a shorthanded one from Tavares to once again take a two goal lead.

However, the Canadiens dominated the rest of the period. Using their speed in the neutral zone, they feasted on Islander turnovers to quickly transition. They peppered Greiss with 22 shots in a lopsided stanza except on the scoreboard. It took some extra effort from struggling center Jonathan Drouin to beat Greiss when he put home a rebound at 19:16 from Alex Galchenyuk and Jakub Jerabek. That made it a one goal deficit after two.

With injuries hurting them, the Isles were down to five defensemen in the third with Scott Mayfield exiting the game. Already without regulars Josh Bailey, Johnny Boychuk and Casey Cizikas, a exhausted Islanders team held on in the third as best they can.

Montreal continued to dictate play by outshooting the Isles 19-7. A Pelech holding minor allowed the Canadiens to tie the game up. A failed clear from Tavares led directly to some nice passing from Montreal. Finally, Galchenyuk fed Jeff Petry for a one-timer that went through a Brendan Gallagher screen for a power play goal that made it 4-4 with 6:59 left in regulation. The goal was later credited to Max Pacioretty. The much maligned Montreal captain drew another penalty when Ryan Puloch tripped him up . But the Isles were able to kill the crucial penalty with under three minutes remaining.

In the final minute, Barzal nearly set up the winner with Beauvillier and Jordan Eberle coming close. That line has been one of the hottest since it was put together by coach Doug Weight.

The game went to overtime. In it, it was some determination by Tavares that got it done. After being robbed by Price, he took a Thomas Hickey feed in front and put home his own rebound for his team-leading 24th at 1:51. A great play by a top player.

The Islanders now are streaking at the right time. With three wins in a row, they can keep it going against the Devils at Barclays Center tonight. The Devs have cooled considerably. They’re locked into third place in the Metro Division with 52 points in just 42 games. The games in hand could be a factor. It should be a interesting match.

In another game of curiosity, the slumping Rangers are hosting the Flyers. Four total points separate third place New Jersey from sixth in the division.

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