I’ve got to tell you, I’m not a big believer in blaming luck.
And at the same time, good and back luck decide hockey games all the time.
It was a good, hard, tough game; and the Rangers at even strength were the better team, at times frustrating the much more desperate Islanders, who needed the two points in a race for the second Wild Card in the East.
That said, I think the Rangers created some of their bad luck, just as they’ve created this incredible streak of seven straight losses at home (where they began the season 8-1, and have since lost 20-of-31).
So they get on a plane today and go to California for three games in four nights, starting in Los Angeles Saturday, in a place where they are the best team in the league at 26-9-1.
That place being anywhere but The Garden.
They go to the coast with eight regular-season games left, games not at all likely to affect their place in the standings or their seeding in the playoffs.
They are eight games, though, that are important for the Rangers in terms of figuring out some things, their forward lines and defense combos, and most notably their special teams.
The Rangers’ penalty kill has been in a bad place for a few weeks now, having allowed power play goals in eight straight games, allowing 10-of-27 attempts in that span, during which the Rangers are 3-3-2.
They entered the third period of the game against the Islanders up 2-1, playing well, and in command. The Blueshirts took two penalties and trailed 3-2, which would ultimately be the final score. The first one went off the skates of two different Islanders in front, both of them covered. Bad luck. For sure.
The second may have been an unlucky bounce, too, but it was indeed scored by an uncovered player in front of the net – one of the two themes in these power-play goal allowed – the other being the backdoor play. Not good enough. Not in the third period of a game like that.
“Yeah, it stings, definitely for sure,” Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh said. “Giving up those, penalty killing, those goals against. Whether you want to call them bad bounces or unfortunate luck, it doesn’t matter.”
The Rangers’ power play has shown some life after a stretch of 15 games without a goal. It scored three times in one game in Carolina on March 9, then scored once in four of the next six games, including one against the Islanders. But in the third period, with a chance to pad a 2-1 lead, the power play reverted to its fancy passing worst, not getting a single shot on goal, and allowing the Islanders to hang around. Again, not good enough. Not in that situation.
Those are both problems that Alain Vigneault insisted are fixable with work, practice, and execution. And they have to be. And quickly.
“It’s something that we obviously need to get better,” Vigneault said after the game. “I think a few weeks ago, we were talking about our power play and we told you that we were going to keep working at it and sooner or later it was going to turn the corner. It has and I believe the exact same thing for our penalty killing. We’ve got the personnel to get the job done and we will.”
The good news for the Rangers, of course, is that they’re comfortably in the playoffs at this late stage, and that thanks to the NHL’s absurd playoff format, they are more than likely going to get the first Wild Card berth, which means a crossover to the Atlantic Division bracket.
That will spare them the gauntlet of going through defending Stanley Cup champ Pittsburgh, powerhouse Washington, and upstart Columbus, coached by you-know-who (Hint: He was the Rangers coach before Vigneault).
The second Wild Card team will get the pleasure of taking on the Metropolitan Division champ, while the 2-3 matchup could be a doozy.
The Rangers, on the other hand, will play the Atlantic winner (the Rangers are almost assured of having a better record), and if they survive that, the winner of the Atlantic’s 2-3 matchup before facing whatever team crawls out of the Metro cage match. A list of potential first/second-round opponents there include Montreal, Ottawa, Boston, and Toronto — all teams that won’t go quietly, but also not the Metro’s Mission Virtually Impossible.
The best part, perhaps, is that the Rangers are virtually assured of not having home-ice advantage (advantage?) through the first three rounds of the playoffs. The only scenario in which they would start at home would be the Eastern Conference Final if, somehow, the second Wild Card slays the Metro giants.
Then there’s this, and we talked about it a couple of days ago: The Rangers are getting healthy with goalie Henrik Lundqvist set to play two of the three games in California after missing two weeks with a hip strain, and both Dan Girardi and Kevin Klein set to return on defense.
So the Rangers have time to tinker, to fine-tune, and to fix whatever is broken before the real season starts. They won’t have much opportunity to get a good feeling about playing at home (three Garden games left, two of those against Pittsburgh, one against Philadelphia).
And, if last season was a lesson, the Rangers need to go into the playoffs playing a tighter, more consistent, 60-minute (or more) game. Because we saw last season what happens when a cold team runs into a hot team in the first round … and it’s not pretty.