The Rangers won 12 out of 15 after their 10-day break to get themselves into a position where the playoffs could be a real possiblity. But with three straight losses (two to the Flyers and one to the Blues), the Rangers are still on the outside looking in at the postseason picture. Now they’re going to need another run close to .750 to finish the season to complete the improbable comeback and clinch a playoff berth.
Here are 10 thoughts on the Rangers as usual.
1. The Rangers did a remarkable and impressive job winning 12 of 15 after their 10-day layoff to get within one win and two points of a playoff berth. After the last three games — all losses — it seems like that might be the closest they get. If it is, sure it was a tease, but it was also a glimpse into the future and that future is something to be excited about. Reminder: the Rangers have the youngest overall roster in the entire league and this is a rebuilding season. I realize no Rangers fan wants to hear about next season when the postseason is within reach, but this season was never supposed to be about the playoffs, and it’s OK if it doesn’t end up being about them either.
2. The three straight losses came against the hottest team in the league in Philadelphia and the defending champion Blues. As I have written the last few weeks in the Thursday Thoughts, the March schedule is a gauntlet, featuring nearly all games against either playoff teams or teams fighting for a playoff spot. The Rangers couldn’t afford more than a few off nights in the entire month, and now they have already used up nearly all of their off nights in three straight games. The Flyers have gone from barely holding down a playoff spot to now one point behind the Capitals for first in the Met and the Blues are still the best in the West. Losses for the Rangers against them shouldn’t be a surprise, and they weren’t, but it was more about how the Rangers lost those games.
3. The losses to the Flyers were essentially the result of a win-now team beating up on a young, rebuilding team. The Flyers have outscored the Rangers 15-5 in three games this season, and it hasn’t mattered which goalie is in net for any of three. Rangers fans were quick 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 and arguably the best team in the strongest division. 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.
4. Lundqvist and the Rangers might have stood a chance if not for Ryan Strome’s sloppy and undisciplined play, which has become a recurring theme this season. The overused, overvalued center has been fortunate to play with Artemi Panarin all season, while also being on the first power-play unit as well, and his numbers are nowhere near where they should be for someone who has been given those two golden opportunities. His addiction to taking minor penalties is bad enough, but the fact that he usually takes them on the power play or in the offensive zone makes it even worse. The Flyers’ first goal came after Strome missed the net badly coming down the right wing and his shot served as a breakout pass for the Flyers who turned the missed shot into an odd-man rush in which Ryan Lindgren took a penalty to stop a potential scoring chance. The Flyers scored on the ensuing power play. The second Flyers’ goal came on the power play as well on a Strome penalty. The Flyers also scored a shorthanded goal after Strome turned the puck over at the Philadelphia blue line and they scored a fourth goal on the power play thanks to another Strome penalty. The Flyers scored five goals, and four of them were directly Strome’s fault. Had he simply skipped Sunday’s game, the Rangers most likely would have won.
5. Finally, on Sunday, David Quinn benched Strome for the third period. It only took 80 percent of the season to be played and for Strome to single-handedly ruin several games this season for the loss of playing time to happen. The bad far outweighs the good when it comes to Strome and I have seen enough. He can’t be part of the 2020-21 Rangers. On Tuesday, he was at it again against St. Louis. The Blues tied the game at 1 with a power-play goal. Who was in the box? Strome, of course.
6. Against the Blues, the Rangers played their most complete game in weeks and deserved better than to suffer a home loss, but for all the games they were dominated and heavily outplayed and won because of their goaltending, Tuesday’s loss was the Hockey Gods’ way of evening things out. The Blues’ go-ahead and eventual game-winning goal was scored on a wraparound against Georgiev, who looked surprised to see the scoring chance appear out of nowhere and his reaction after the goal confirmed his shock. The goal cost the Rangers a chance at a much-needed point or possible win, but I didn’t see much about it on social media from Rangers fans. Had it been Lundqvist in the net, the word “buyout” would have been trending on social media.
7. The combination of Panarin and Mika Zibanejad have won the Rangers so many games this season, and when either one has been absent, the Rangers lose. Their early-season losing steak after Zibanejad went down is the reason they are on the outside looking in on the playoffs right now, and their only loss to the Islanders came in the one game Panarin missed this season, which was a huge four-point swing in both the Met and wild-card standings. The duo is as dangerous as any pair of players together on the power play and when they are placed on the same line, the Rangers’ even-strength offense is must-watch. The problem is they are rarely paired on the same line. I have written and said all season that the Rangers need to screw line balance and put the two on the same line the way teams like the Bruins and Avalanche stack their top players. But Quinn only uses the option when the Rangers are losing in the third period, and he did so with 10 minutes left against the Blues. Apparently, the first 50 minutes of the game when the Rangers generated close to zero even-strength offense against arguably the best defensive team in the league wasn’t enough for Quinn to realize the Rangers needed to adjust. A line with Panarin and Zibanejad shouldn’t be used only in emergencies. It should be used all the time.
8. I watch a lot of hockey thanks to NHL TV. A lot. No team in the league misses the net on shot attempts from the point more than the Rangers, and no one in the league misses more from the blue line than Jacob Trouba. It seems impossible to miss the net as much as Trouba does, and after watching him every game for now 66 games, he has been a disappointment. He can’t continue to be a disappointment though. Not at his salary and cap hit and not with the long list of top-end defensive prospects the Rangers have. The Rangers need Trouba to be much better than he has been all season, both offensively and defensively, and I think he would say the same.
9. The Rangers are four points out of a playoff spot with 16 games left to play. As of now, it’s going to take at least 97 points to get in and that would mean an 11-4-1 finish. I don’t know how the Rangers can manage to achieve that record with 13 of their remaining games against Washington (2), Dallas, Colorado, Arizona, Calgary, Pittsburgh (3), Columbus, Tampa Bay, Florida and Philadelphia. The number could certainly come down if the Blue Jackets, Islanders and Hurricanes stumble the way they have recently to keep the Rangers only four points out despite their three-game losing streak, but the Rangers are still going to have to win at least two-thirds of their games to have any chance.
10. It’s going to be disappointing if the Rangers did everything they did in February only to fall short of the playoffs in March. I mean disappointing in the sense of wanting to watch Rangers playoff hockey for the first time in three years and not being able to, but not in the sense of being disappointed in this team. This team has overachieved all season and with the future as bright as ever and next year expectations will be much different than they were this year, and I think the results and record will be too. I don’t expect the Rangers to play .750 hockey for the last 16 games given the opponents they will play, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they do enough to stay in the race until the last week or two of the season, considering they have been surprising everyone all season. I will take one last surprise of them earning a wild-card berth.