‘Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
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This is as bad as it gets for the Rangers. On Wednesday night, the Blueshirts played the worst hockey possible in a game where they absolutely needed to raise their level to match the confident and assured Penguins. Instead, the Rangers could not get out of their own way and gift-wrapped numerous chances for Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Brandon Sutter and Co.
“We didn’t pick a good night to manage the puck the way we did,” Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault said. “Our puck management and execution tonight weren’t very good and ultimately cost us the game.”
It may have been the most painful game to watch in the long and storied history of the Rangers, and an irate home crowd let them know it. Every person inside the Garden deserves a full refund for being subjected to the sloppy, out-of-sync, uninspired hockey produced by the Rangers. Only one team showed up for Game 4. It was the men wearing the white, black and gold uniforms bearing the fierce cartoon Penguin emblem on their chests.
Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury hasn’t been tested all series. In Game 4, the Rangers only put 15 total shots on goal and only managed four shots on goal in the third period against a team that went down to five defenseman after Brooks Orpik missed the final two periods of play due to an undisclosed injury. Fleury’s focus has yet to be tested this series. He has strolled through this series.
His reputation of mental fragility, concentration lapses and puck-handling issues haven’t been put to the test by the Blueshirts. The Rangers aren’t establishing traffic or any kind of net-front presence, which was especially true in Wednesday’s dismal 4-2 defeat.
“We didn’t give them much of a test to see where they’re at tonight,” alternate captain Brad Richards said.
The pulseless Blueshirts now head back to Pittsburgh with a 3-1 series deficit. Very few Rangers fans can imagine this series returning to Madison Square Garden for Game 6 Sunday. In all likelihood, the Rangers’ season will end on Friday night at Consol Energy Center. Thus will begin another long offseason full of questions for general manager Glen Sather, who will reassemble the pieces of a roster that is overdue for a serious run at Lord Stanley.
With every playoff failure, franchise goalie Henrik Lundqvist’s window to win a championship becomes increasingly tighter. How many more of Lundqvist’s prime years can this team throw away? Lundqvist remains the only blameless character on the Rangers’ roster. No matter how ugly or sloppy his teammates play in front of him, Lundqvist is always a shining beacon of hope whom fans can place their complete and utter trust. Yet his career is stuck skipping like a broken vinyl record. It’s the same story every year for Lundqvist.
NASH RECEIVES LOUD BOOS, BUT HE’S NOT THE ONLY ONE TO BLAME
Rangers fans have a right to be fed up. Collectively, the Garden crowd took out their frustration at under-pressure winger Rick Nash. Whenever Nash carried the puck in Game 4, a chorus of loud boos followed him.
Nash failed to pull the trigger on clear chances and made a couple of costly turnovers. One giveaway was the most glaring, as his neutral-zone gaffe led to a shorthanded goal for Sutter. Nash leads all players with 45 shots during the 2014 playoffs, but he’s yet to score a goal in 11 playoff games. In 23 playoff games as a Ranger, Nash has only scored one goal.
On Wednesday, the 29-year-old winger produced a team-leading four shots on goal, but missed the net on countless occasions. Nash fully understands why the fans are turning on him.
“It’s tough, but you understand where they’re coming from,” Nash said. “I made a tough play that cost us a goal against. You’ve got to take ownership of those plays, and I understand why that happens.”
He’s become the symbol of the Rangers’ frustration and the scapegoat in the eyes of fans.
“It doesn’t matter what you do all year,” Nash said. “It matters what you do in the playoffs when things count. Obviously, I’ve been struggling.”
RICHARDS: ‘WE’RE 100 PERCENT BEHIND NASH’
Since Ryan Callahan was dealt for Martin St. Louis at the trade deadline, Brad Richards has stepped up to assume the role of spokesperson for the team. He’s handled himself like a captain even if there isn’t a “C” stitched on the front of his sweater. After Game 4, Richards said that he and his teammates are “100 percent behind” Nash.
“It’s a tough thing,” Richards said. “Rick’s a human being that’s out there trying his best. He’s putting pressure on himself because he knows it’s his job to do so. But we’ve all been through different situations. In here as a team, we’re 100 percent behind him.”
The 34-year-old alternate captain admitted that he’s upset to hear Nash and longtime teammate St. Louis on the receiving end of boos from the Garden crowd.
“Does it upset me? Yeah, it upsets me, it upsets everybody in the locker room,” Richards said. “We’re not 15th in the league, we’re in the second round of the playoffs. But that’s my opinion. I understand sports and where it’s all at and so does he and so does everybody in here. But it’s not just him, it’s not just one person. It’s the whole team. We didn’t play tonight and for one or two guys to get booed, that’s frustrating as a team.”
It’s not just Nash. Aside from Lundqvist, this whole team has hit the self-destruct button. Nash’s linemates St. Louis and Derek Stepan have gone missing all series. St. Louis remains without a point this series, which is jaw-dropping considering St. Louis’ reputation for rallying, playoff heroics. Both Stepan and St. Louis’ sticks looked allergic to pucks on Wednesday night. The puck kept bouncing off St. Louis’ famed magic wand.
Key defenseman Ryan McDonagh doesn’t look anywhere near the player who rightfully deserved Norris Trophy consideration. He’s not at full speed, nor does he possess the strength needed to win battles in the corners and around the net.
Malkin outmuscled McDonagh on multiple occasions and skated by him with ease throughout Game 4. He was left in the dust by Sutter in the second period. His left shoulder probably isn’t anywhere close to 100 percent. McDonagh is expected not only to provide defensive stability, but to work the point on the power play. Yes, a power play that is mired in an 0-for-36 slump. The 24-year-old defenseman has zero goals and one assist these playoffs. Through 11 games, he’s a minus-five. Defensive partner Dan Girardi is a minus-four during the playoffs.
Blame Nash if you’d like.
But make sure you also point the finger at every player wearing a Rangers jersey whose name isn’t Henrik Lundqvist.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.
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