By Sean Hartnett
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There aren’t enough superlatives to properly characterize how well the Rangers played in November. Their 9-3 record rescued them from a brutal start that had many calling for head coach Alain Vigneault’s head.
One word you could use to summarize the Rangers today is “resilient.” Tuesday’s near-comeback from a three-goal first-period deficit against the Florida Panthers was clear evidence of this team’s collective mettle.
Star goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was chased before the first intermission after surrendering three goals on six shots. Lundqvist’s struggles had as much to do with fluky bounces as it did a rare off-night from the 35-year-old Swedish stopper, who had recently recaptured All-Star form.
The cruelness of bad bounces, the inopportune moments when the Rangers handled the puck like a grenade, and subpar goaltending all contributed to a game that could have spiraled out of control.
Though the Rangers did not get the come-from-behind victory they desired, their competitive spirit was on full display.
Chris Kreider did all he could to carry the team on his shoulders. Pavel Buchnevich played like a man possessed and scared the living daylights out of two Panthers who charged to fight him, only to scurry away like scaredy cats once the 22-year-old began throwing punches like a wild man. David Desharnais summoned one of his best games as a Ranger after being informed less than two hours before the game that he would enter the lineup in place of injured center Mika Zibanejad.
“We called him up at I think 5:25 or 5:30 to come in and play,” head coach Alain Vigneault said. “He wasn’t scheduled to take warmup. He came in, I thought that line (Kreider-Desharnais-Buchnevich) played well.
“It’s hard in the first period,” the coach added. “They got some bounces and they took a 3-0 lead. Again, we were able to battle back and tie it up, but you have to be able to make those plays at the end and we weren’t able to get it done tonight.”
Vigneault said he should know more about Zibanejad’s upper-body injury on Wednesday.
Resiliency is an essential ingredient to any winning formula, but it can only take a team so far. While the Rangers passed the gut-check test on Tuesday, it wasn’t enough on the scoreboard or in the standings.
What was concerning about the defeat was how it was bookended by sloppy puck management, which fueled Florida’s offense, specifically Denis Malgin’s eventual game-winning goal with 1:09 left in regulation. A lot of fans pointed the finger of blame at Nick Holden for the multiple turnovers that led to goals, including a mistake he made on the deciding goal. But Holden wasn’t the only Ranger who was careless with the puck or structurally out of position.
Holden is capable of serving as a competent third-pairing defenseman on virtually any NHL team, but should be sheltered from crunch-time minutes. Maybe on another night, when captain Ryan McDonagh is available, Holden won’t be on the ice at such a crucial juncture. But the deciding goal was reminiscent of Vigneault’s tendency to keep trusting Holden in late-game situations despite his game-costing miscues last spring.
The bad starts seen in recent games had been masked by the four-game winning streak that preceded Tuesday’s loss. This trend was worrying to alternate captain Rick Nash, who pointed out the issue on Sunday even though the Rangers went on to defeat Vancouver in a shootout.
“We have to try to figure out our first periods in the next few days,” Nash said on Sunday. “Good teams find ways to win the games that they don’t play their best and I thought we did that.”
Perhaps the remedy will arrive once McDonagh’s stabilizing, all-around presence is back in the lineup. The 28-year-old defenseman is averaging 23:22 of ice time per night, and having him shoulder minute-devouring workloads slides teammates to less intensive roles.
McDonagh missed his fourth consecutive game due to an abdominal strain. Though McDonagh participated in Tuesday’s morning skate, Vigneault typically prefers recovering players to take part in a full practice before he re-inserts them into the lineup. The Rangers’ next practice is scheduled for Thursday morning. Should McDonagh respond well, he’ll likely be given the green light to suit up for Friday’s contest against the Carolina Hurricanes.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey