It’s become increasingly apparent that the 2017-2018 New York Rangers will not be a playoff team. The standings may show there is still a good chance for a post season berth but not even Rangers’ celebrity fan Liam Neeson is being “Taken” in by a team that continues to lose in humiliating fashion.
The latest example came last night at the Garden as the Maple Leafs flew in from Toronto and used a “Canadian Club” to bury the home team in a 4-0 rout.
The Rangers were frustrated by a tenacious Toronto defense that, when they did have the puck, had two and three defenders on it at all times. In their last 17 games, the Rangers have gone 6-9-2 and a staple of this skid has been mistakes in their own zone and giving up an early goal. Like on cue, that negative trend reared it’s ugly head midway through the first period.
In attempting to clear the zone, Ryan McDonagh made an awful pass that was kept in at the blue line by Toronto’s Travis Dermott. Maple Leafs’ defenseman Justin Holl took a feed from Dermott and fired a shot from the right circle that caught the inside portion of the left post to beat Ranger goaltender Henrik Lundqvist for a 1-0 lead. “We let our guard down, you know even a few minutes within a period, a team like that will make you pay,” McDonagh said.
Later in the period, Mats Zuccarello was beaten badly by Maple Leafs’ left wing James van Riemsdyk, who skated in on Lundqvist and beat him with a nifty backhander for a 2-0 lead. “There were definitely plays there that we needed to make,” coach Alain Vigneault said after the game. “Whether it be on their first goal where we didn’t handle the puck twice the way we should have or on their second goal where we didn’t check the way we can.”
The Rangers were justifiably booed after the first period and tried to regroup for a better second period but that “Broadway Blueprint” was shelved just 52 seconds in when the Leafs’ Patrick Marleau was left wide open in the slot and he beat Lundqvist for a 3-0 advantage. McDonagh knew that third goal was a killer. “That’s a crucial part of the game,” the Captain said, “we’re trying to re-establish our own momentum on our side, give up a big time chance like that, it’s not gonna help our cause.”
The “coup de grace” came when Toronto’s Zach Hyman snuck in behind five Ranger defenders and put the puck past Lundqvist who gave up four goals on 13 shots and was then replaced by Ondrej Pavelec. After the game, a puzzled Lundqvist took full responsibility for an embarrassing performance. “My last two starts, I have to be better. I know that, that’s the simple answer. As a group we have to be better but I have to start with myself,” he said.
The Rangers are still in the playoff hunt but are they really?
With 31 games remaining, the Rangers have 55 points but are on the outside, looking in at a Wild Card spot. Carolina and Philadelphia have moved ahead of the Rangers and have played better hockey recently and one other factor looms large as an obstacle to a playoff berth. The Rangers only have 12 home games remaining, have not played well on the road and have not been able to clean up the defensive lapses that have led to a number of brutal losses.
The Rangers’ dilemma is two fold. The front office has to decide if it’s worth it to make a deal to potentially enhance their playoff chances or should they trade off their assets with an eye towards next season and beyond. Rick Nash may bring back some value while McDonagh’s name has come up in some reports. McDonagh can only deal with the here and now but he knows the calendar is not on the Rangers’ side. “We don’t have enough time, enough games here that we can afford to let down our guard,” he said.
It’s been said that it will take at least 96 points to make the playoffs but the schedule could ultimately prove to be the Rangers’ downfall.
Of the final 31 games, the Rangers still have two left with Tampa Bay, the best team in the league, and two vs. Winnipeg, the leader in the Western Conference. There is also a four game road trip where they’ll play four games in seven days and a three game road trip that takes them to Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton. The Rangers close the season with five out of six on the road. The lone home game in that stretch is against Tampa Bay.
It doesn’t line up well and time is running out fast. “The desperation needs to be there every night,” Lundqvist. At this point, the Rangers need a lot more than desperation.