1. This March swoon, if you want to call it that (6-8-2 in the last 16 games) could reasonably be explained as human nature.
Does that excuse anything that’s happened to their game or to their record? No. But we’ve seen many times over the decades, and even in the playoffs; when one team is actually more desperate than the other, the more desperate team usually wins.
The Rangers have played opponent after opponent fighting for their playoff lives or for important seeding position while having little for which to actually play for themselves.
2. With that said, New York needs to find some desperation soon or more accurately – right now, because it’s getting late here – five games remaining – and they’re starting to resemble the group that stumbled into the 2016 playoffs, losing in five games by the eventual champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Penguins, by the way, who are having their own little problems (injuries, four straight losses, having been swamped 5-1 at home by Chicago Wednesday night and the top seed slipping away) come to The Garden for the Rangers’ next game on Friday.
3. Which brings us to the little matter of not only the Rangers facing an angry defending champ, but doing so in the dreaded first-game-after-a-road-trip scenario, on a home-ice surface where they have a 19-16-3 record (but have won just 11 of 29 since their 8-1 home start and now have lost seven in a row).
That’s a problem the Rangers may not have enough time to fix, with just three home games remaining in the regular season (Philadelphia in town Sunday, and the Penguins again to close the season). They need to figure out how to play their usual straight-ahead road game at home, though they will have road-ice advantage throughout the playoffs, most likely.
4. The Blueshirts’ road-warrior reputation took a hit on the just-finished California trip, where they beat slip-sliding Los Angeles behind Antti Raanta’s shutout. Then, they played two of their worst road games of the season, allowing a total of 11 goals to Anaheim and slump-ridden San Jose with an admittedly wobbly Henrik Lundqvist in goal. They got the one point that clinched a playoff spot, but there has to be concern for the start-to-finish performances in both games this late in the season.
Last season, the Rangers were on one of their best stretches of the year around the trade deadline, then spiraled downward. This skid isn’t nearly on that level nor is it as sustained. But it is alarming in the way it has come down – sloppiness in net-front coverage, carelessness with the puck coming up ice, a seriously struggling penalty kill, and now the big question of whether Lundqvist has enough time (four, maybe five more starts) to get his game back after a two-week absence with a hip injury.
To me, the defensive-zone play and the penalty kill can be lethal if not fixed quickly, no matter who the first-round opponent turns out to be. I always say this about special teams: A good power play can win you games; a bad penalty kill will lose games. Especially in the playoffs.
In addition, the Blueshirts and coach Alain Vigneault have half a dozen more experimental games to find the right forward lines, the right defense pairs, and, as they are fond of saying, the right way to play and consistently so.
5. If you saw Lundqvist’s post-game interview on MSG Networks, you saw a guy who seemed to lack confidence and answers. There are reasons, many of them, to think Lundqvist can and will come out of this, ranging from goalie coach Benoit Allaire’s magic whispering, to Lundqvist’s legendary competitiveness and work habits. But he has struggled coming out of breaks before, as he mentioned Tuesday night, and this has been his most difficult season already. He is obviously the most important player on the roster.
6. The Rangers did sew up their seventh straight playoff berth, and 11th in the last 12 seasons in the salary-cap era, no small feat; especially in doing so coming off seven straight non-playoff seasons before the lockout (two lockouts ago).
I’ve always thought, ultimately with the final prize aside, that this is one of the golden eras in Rangers history. This stretch of excellence when the team has had a few chances to truly compete with the league’s elite for the Stanley Cup.
You’d have to be an awfully spoiled fan (what I call the “Steinbrenner-ization” of sports?) to not appreciate it for what it has been. This team in 2016-17 overachieved for a lot of the year, and by many were expected to take a step back this season. They didn’t. Or haven’t yet. And whatever happens from now through April or beyond, they will have chances to get better in the summer and continue to load up for another run next season.
7. I still think, though not as strongly perhaps as I did a couple of weeks ago, that these Rangers, if they figure out some stuff, and once they get to the instant desperation produced by the start of the Cup tournament, are the best team in the Atlantic bracket.
But we know that the Montreal Canadiens have Carey Price, the vintage-Lundqvist of the North, and that the other two teams will come into the playoffs on a roll, having had to fight it out for weeks just to get invited.
The Rangers have some pedigree, with loads of players who have been through playoff wars, many of them having been in 13 series (three Eastern Conference finals, one Stanley Cup final) in the previous five seasons.
It’s up to the Rangers to rediscover the game they played for three-quarters of the season or so, by taking care of the puck, protecting the house around the net, and using their speed and skill. The other teams in the Atlantic bracket have just as many issues defensively as the Rangers have had lately.
But even if the Rangers are better, and are playing better, we all know that there are no guarantees in any series in the postseason, particularly in that first round.
8. Ryan McDonagh hit every single note perfectly after the 5-4 loss in San Jose, which was that the team was not competitive enough through two periods, but saw the Rangers somehow gain a 4-3 third-period lead before losing in OT.
On the playoff clincher: “The big picture, you know, we give ourselves an opportunity to compete for the best trophy in sports,” McDonagh said on MSG Networks. “We know our game isn’t where it needs to be for us to be successful in these playoffs, but we’ve got some games here now to continue to improve in some areas.
“We’re still giving up a lot of goals, especially the last few games, and it’s around the front of the net there … special teams, we’ve got to continue to work there. We got some power-play goals, but the penalty kill is going to be crucial as we keep going.
“We had one mission, to try and find a way to clinch, and we should feel real good about ourselves. And I hope our fans are excited because it’s fun hockey and we did a lot of hard work to get it here, and we’re hoping to accomplish a lot more.”
It’s still possible, but some leaks must be plugged first, some structure and resolve rediscovered. In a hurry.