After the Blueshirts lost to Florida on Tuesday night (by the score of 5-4), there was an uneasy feeling around MSG. The team went down 3-0 quickly in the first period and Henrik Lundqvist was justifiably pulled. The team was missing captain Ryan McDonagh, with the blueline committing three giveaways in the first period alone. David Descharnais was inserted into the lineup because Mika Zibanejad had some symptoms—today we found out that those symptoms were of a concussion and that he will be out indefinitely.
Even without McDonagh on the ice for three games, the Rangers had been on a hot streak prior to Tuesday. They had a four-game win streak and won eight out of the previous 10 games. But, it broke down on Tuesday and it will be tough going forward without Mika on the ice for any length of time.
With 22 points thus far this season, Zibanejad is the team’s leading scorer, but more than that, he is their first line center–the forward that plays the most shifts per game (25.54). He has been slowly growing into his role, and frankly, if he would just learn to go to his sweet spot on the power play (the left circle), he would be even more deadly with the puck than he has been this season. Now, he is out for who knows how long, and it will hurt.
It’s not like the Rangers are a deep team—at times they can be excellent, but they have vulnerabilities. The first is in goal. Yes, over the years, Lundqvist has been one of the best goalies in the league. But, he is being asked to play way too much this season. Tuesday evening was Henrik’s 22nd game of the season; and the Rangers’ 25th. That means that he is on course to play about 70 games—about 10 games more than he should be. No one wants Lundqvist to play close to 90 games, including the playoffs. It’s an easy way to an early exit from the post-season. Although it is understandable that he was on a win streak and the coaching staff wanted him to keep playing, but pacing himself to make sure that he does not burn out, is key. So, is the fact that Ondrej Pavelec needs to play to keep sharp. Pavelec could have started against a team like Florida (who was 9-12-2 before Tuesday night), but the problem is that his stats are terrible. The Rangers have been tempted to make sure the wins keep coming and overplayed Lundqvist. Bad mistake long term. That’s for sure.
As far as the defense goes, without McDonagh the team has a less than stellar blueline. However, for most of the games that the captain has missed, the Rangers have not suffered much. The teams New York has faced have not been the most competitive. Florida, another such team, should have been an easy win for New York, but the Panthers played very well to start the contest and then hung on.
The defense was pretty porous and, although Nick Holden had been playing well alongside McDonagh, partnered with Brendan Smith on Tuesday, he was just awful. Officially he gave the puck away four times, but there were one or two others where Holden’s positioning was so bad, opposing players just skated around him. The good thing is that McDonagh is expected back tomorrow night and that will change the feel of the blueline. Kevin Shattenkirk and Brady Skjei, who were very good against Florida, can go back to a second pairing role, where they work well together. Speaking of which, quietly, Shattenkirk is improving his D. So now, not only does he have a great attitude and offensive skills, but he also can anticipate and play the other side of the puck.
As for the forwards, there has been an amazing diversity of goal scorers on this team. Mika leads the way, but he is only one of five forwards who have more than 15 points (at 25 games in the season). There is a shortage of top six centers on the team, so the loss of Mika will be difficult. But given the scoring capacity of several other forwards, the team should be okay, if Zibanejad is not out of action for long. The Rangers need him in the game and, as a number one center, to win key faceoffs. Overall, the Rangers have been better at this during the 2017-18 season than in the recent past (50.4% to 48.4% last year), but without Mika, that is not sustainable.
The organization is holding their breath, as the playoffs depend on his early return.