By Daniel Friedman
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On Wednesday night, the Pittsburgh Penguins came into Madison Square Garden and handed the New York Rangers a 4-2 loss.
The Penguins left the ice surface with the comforting realization that they now have a commanding 3-1 series lead, while the Blueshirts undoubtedly skated off with a sense of bewilderment.
It couldn’t have been a fun night for Rangers forward Rick Nash, who was relentlessly booed by the fans in MSG. Nash, who is generally regarded as an elite player, has been anything but in these playoffs. He has just four points (all assists) in 11 games
Nash is slumping, and that has had an adverse effect on his team’s performance. However, the extent of the damage — specifically in the Rangers’ case — tells us a lot more.
The reality is that Nash isn’t the first star player to go M.I.A. in the postseason, and he won’t be the last. He isn’t even the only one who’s struggling in these playoffs. This is not a situation that is unique to the Rangers.
Take the Boston Bruins, for instance. They currently trail the Montreal Canadiens in the second round, but only by a game and they’re right in that series. They are succeeding despite the fact that three of their best skaters — Zdeno Chara, David Krecji and Loui Eriksson — are not playing their best hockey as far as production is concerned.
Chara, Krecji and Eriksson have played eight games between the first and second rounds. They have just three points each.
The Canadiens disposed of the Tampa Bay Lightning in four skirmishes and now lead the Bruins 2-1. You’d hardly notice that two of their more important puzzle pieces are going through a rough stretch.
In the regular season, Max Pacioretty led the Habs in goals with 39. He has yet to score in the playoffs and has just two assists to his name. Andrei Markov and PK Subban arguably give the Canadiens the NHL’s best one-two punch of offensive defensemen. Yet Markov has two points and a minus-four rating in seven games. He had 43 points this season.
The defending Stanley Cup champions are getting the job done despite the fact that Patrick Sharp has only managed three points in nine games.
Herein lies the biggest difference between the great teams and the Rangers. A true contender does not simply keel over when one (or even two) of its stars has a cold streak. Upper-echelon teams have enough depth on offense to overcome such adversity.
The Bruins are able to survive because if Chara doesn’t produce, Torey Krug (eight points in eight games) and Dougie Hamilton (seven points) will. If Krecji goes through a bad stretch, Patrice Bergeron (nine points) will pick up the slack. When Eriksson isn’t coming through, Milan Lucic and Jarome Iginla are able to provide extra support.
Montreal can weather the storm if Pacioretty isn’t scoring because Thomas Vanek, Brendan Gallagher and Daniel Briere (among others) have shown that they’ll step up. The Los Angeles Kings can live without Mike Richards’ production (just two points in nine games) because they also have Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter down the middle.
Conversely, the Rangers do not have that kind of help available to them. When Nash or Martin St. Louis has a bad game, there are very few players who are able to come on in relief.
Sure, Mats Zuccarello has had a nice year. Chris Kreider will likely be a good second-line scorer when healthy. There are some pieces. But beyond those two, you’re looking at Carl Hagelin — a fast, gritty, very good third liner who doesn’t score all that much — and Benoit Pouliot, who’s been very solid in these playoffs in terms of production but is by no means that good of a hockey player.
There are no Iginlas, no Krugs and no Gallaghers. There are no Bergerons or Carters.
At the end of the day, New York’s offense just isn’t deep enough. People were convinced that John Tortorella was holding the team back and that simply firing him was the key to unlocking its scoring potential.
Well, here we are a year later and, the fact is, the Rangers still can’t find the back of the net. Not only can they not score, but they’ve actually gotten worse. This year, New York fell from 15th to 18th in goals per game. Their power play was good for one stretch in March, allowing them to finish 15th in the NHL in that department — better than the year before, but still mediocre.
It turns out the Rangers just don’t have enough depth on offense. Everyone wanted to blame former assistant coach Mike Sullivan for the team’s struggles with the man advantage. Meanwhile, they still don’t have a defenseman who’s actually capable of running a power play, and I’m not sure they’ve had one since Brian Leetch.
Had the Blueshirts drafted Cam Fowler in 2010 instead of Dylan McIlrath — like they were supposed to — perhaps this wouldn’t be an issue today.
The Rangers’ offense wasn’t good enough before. One coach and one year later, it still isn’t good enough.
If they want to become an elite team, that needs to change. At this rate, it wouldn’t even matter if Nash was producing. They’d still be outgunned and outmatched in the offensive zone.
You can bring up the schedule if you’d like. Yes, the Rangers have played six games in eight nights. But I’ve got news for you: If the Blueshirts would have bothered to show up for Game 6 in Philadelphia, perhaps they wouldn’t have had to play six games in eight nights. It’s just another excuse; nothing more, nothing less.
These playoffs have taught us a lot of things. Most notably, a lead (no matter how big) is never safe, and that it’s one thing to be good, but quite another to be great.
Most of the building blocks may very well be in place, but the Rangers are not there yet.
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