I can’t lie: I bought into the hype. After the Rangers came out of their 10-day layoff with wins in 12 of 15 games and got within one win of a postseason berth, I started to think of an 83rd Rangers game this season. After back-to-back seasons without playoff hockey, I couldn’t help myself from thinking this rebuilding Rangers team could go from the inconsistent, frustrating club they were all season before the All-Star break to become a wild-card team in the final two-plus months of the season. But after the last two games, the dream of the Rangers reaching the postseason is once again just that: a dream.
When Artemi Panarin scored the first goal of the game on Friday in Philadelphia I started to think the Rangers really might continue their improbable run from barely being alive in the postseason picture to acquiring a berth. But after that first-period goal from Panarin, the Flyers went on to outscore the Rangers 10-4 for the rest of their home-and-home weekend series. Add in the Flyers’ 5-1 win from earlier this season, and it’s been a lopsided rivalry with the Rangers being outscored at a 3-to-1 margin over nine periods.
The Flyers have been just as good as the Rangers lately with wins in 11 of 14 (including six straight), as they have changed their own postseason fate, going from being the second wild-card team to now sitting three points behind Washington for the top seed in the Met. The Flyers are finally doing what they were supposed to do this season, and they have handled the Rangers the way they were supposed to this season.
What was forgotten before the weekend is that the Flyers are very much in a win-now window, while the Rangers are still the youngest overall team in the league and a team that isn’t supposed to contend for a few more seasons. I thought the Rangers might be able to hang with the Flyers better than they had the first time the two teams met, but it ended up being hte same story. The Rangers’ last month wrongly changed every Rangers fan’s perspective of the team and masked the Rangers’ real problem of still lacking winning defense in front of whichever goalie is in net. The way the Rangers have managed to win for the last month isn’t sustainable for much longer than it has been and the Flyers easily exposed the Rangers’ defensive issues.
I’m part of the faction of Rangers fans who were suddenly wearing blinders after the recent run. While the Rangers were winning games they had no business of winning thanks to the kind of great goaltending they have now been leaning on for 15 straight seasons, I thought road wins over Winnipeg, Minnesota, Columbus, Carolina, the Islanders and Montreal meant this team had finally turned a corner. I still think they have turned a corner and are a different team than they were in the first four months of the season, they just have a long way to go, and the Flyers reminded us all of that.
It didn’t take long for Rangers fans to turn on Henrik Lundqvist on Sunday as if the loss or the five goals were in any way his fault. Lundqvist was making just his seventh start in 69 days and first in 27 days and was being asked to somehow steal a win against the hottest team in the league. He might have been able to do so if he was ever given a chance, but with Ryan Strome’s sloppy and undisciplined play combined with an abundance of power-play opportunites and odd-man rushes, Lundqvist never stood a chance. Lundqvist endured the same fate Alexandar Georgiev did two days prior as both were tagged with five goals against. It didn’t matter who played in goal for the Rangers in either game, they weren’t winning. Igor Shesterkin wasn’t stealing a win for the Rangers this weekend. No goalie was.
The Flyers showed how far the gap is between the Rangers and the true contenders in the league. The Rangers are winless in three games against the Flyers and the difference in the teams is blatantly noticeable. The Rangers have been able to win games against some of the league’s top teams like Washington, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and Colorado, and now they’re going to need to do a whole lot more winning against those teams over their remaining 17 games.
With games against St. Louis, Washington (2), Dallas, Colorado, Arizona, Calgary, Pittsburgh (3), Columbus, Tampa Bay, Florida and Philadelphia, the Rangers have as hard of a remaining schedule as there is. Their games against teams completely out of the playoff picture aren’t exactly a walk in the park either in Montreal, New Jersey, Buffalo and Chicago.
The Rangers did a remarkable job to get within one win and two points of the second wild card, and it would be a letdown if they weren’t able to complete the improbable comeback, and were to unravel over this last month. Their schedule suggests getting within one win and two points is as close as they’ll get to the playoffs this season, a season that was never supposed to be about the playoffs, but this Rangers team has defied the odds to play meaningful hockey in March. If they want to play meaningful hockey in April, they’ll have to close the gap the Flyers exposed this weekend and close it before the defending champion Blues get to the Garden on Tuesday.