Eight games does not a season make. But, New York’s 1-5-2 record gives a good indication that something is wrong on Broadway. Although not the worst team in the league right now (that ignominious title belongs to the 0-6-1 Arizona Coyotes), if the team does not admit their shortcomings now and make some changes, their playoff chances this year will soon be gone. Both the current wild card place holders in the Eastern Conference (Philly and Detroit) have eight points–four points more than the Rangers. Although the four points/two wins may not seem insurmountable, there are already six teams to jump over to get to a playoff spot. And despite the fact that a short winning streak can get the Blueshirts back in the mix in a hurry, within two or so more weeks, the number of points needed actually can make getting to the playoffs six months from now very dicey.
The problems must be faced head-on for there to be any hope of changing the outcome. And last night’s game is indicative of what needs to be looked at. First, it was a game that the Rangers should have won. Forget for a moment that the “no goal” call from the war room in Toronto on Brendan Smith’s third period was just so wrong (since when is kicking a puck from one skate to the other and then it going into the goal off the second skate “a distinct kicking motion”—this is not a distinct kicking motion that intends to and actually directs the puck into the net). And forget that the puck was acting extremely weirdly on the Garden ice (which caused some of the missed passes and poor plays). The reason the Rangers should have won is became the game was against the Islanders, who do not match up man-for-man against the Blueshirts and do not have an all-star goaltender between the pipes to make all the stops.
But, in order to win, the Rangers had to put in a massive amount of effort, and it just was not there. From not making the effort to prevent an icing call against them to the failure to fore- or back- check throughout the entire game, it looked like the Rangers were often going through the motions. There was no grit whatsoever. I found myself missing the lunch-pail team of five years ago and the coaching of John Tortorella.
If this team thinks that it is constructed to be an offensive powerhouse, they are wrong. Yes, it has more firepower along the blueline than last season (ie, Kevin Shattenkirk). But it does not have enough to make the playoffs without hard work and assistance in New York’s own zone. Assistance by the forwards in making it hard for the opposition to enter the zone is crucial, in that there just is not enough on the back end to do the job completely. The choice to get Shattenkirk to strengthen the power play from the back end makes that assistance a necessity.
But not only was there no grit from the forwards, the lines were hard to understand. Yes, it makes sense that the coaching staff wants to shake things up after a bad start to the season, but does David Desharnais really belong centering the second line? And is the team best served with Pavel Buchnevich on the fourth line? Buchnevich has developed some chemistry with Mika Zibanejad. Why not keep them on the top line together?
And then there was the goaltending. Dare I whisper it? Henrik Lundqvist may not be what he once was. Yes, he still makes some outstanding saves, where Lundqvist brings fans out of their seats, cheering his name. But now there are the other times–when he lets pucks through and goals are scored that are very unKing-like. If this was just the beginning of this season, perhaps it would be less worrisome than it is now. But a noticeable trend began last season and continues in 2017-18—he cannot be counted on to make a save pretty much every time it is possible. Lundqvist let in one (okay, arguably two) goals last night that in the past he would have stopped–one goal that would have translated into a win for the Rangers.
Although somewhat blasphemous, speaking about Lundqvist’s issues begins to throw light on what needs to be addressed to change this team’s fortunes. In addition to the challenge of Lundqvist’s uneven performance in goal, one must look at the fact that the team is down one top six center. After a world-wind, exciting September, it looked like Filip Chytil could possibly fill that spot. But right now, he is in Hartford, adjusting to North American professional play. Chytil had two good AHL games last weekend and plays again tonight, but it is not clear that he will be ready in the next week or two. And is it fair (or good for development) to put all that pressure on a just 18-year-old who expected to play in the Czech Republic this season? Chytil does look like a great sniper with outstanding wheels and vision but, if rushed, he may never reach his potential.
It therefore seems that a trade for a center should be considered, probably where a player or two that was previously off-limits in such discussions is now in play. And yes, firing the head coach is always a possibility. But, remember that a coach can only work with the players he has been given. This is a case where, in a highly competitive, tightly matched NHL, Head Coach Alain Vigneault just does not have the right talent to make it work. So, although some of the lack of effort may justifiably be attributed to him, if Vigneault were to leave, any short-term bump that might result will not solve the problem that this team currently does not have the horses to cross the playoff finish line. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, “it got late early” at Madison Square Garden last night. It is doing so on the 2017-18 season too.