By Sean Hartnett
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After Monday’s atrocious performance against the Dallas Stars, one would have thought the Rangers would have been in serious bounce-back mode the next time they stepped on the ice.
Instead of taking advantage of the sinking Ottawa Senators on Wednesday, the Blueshirts were done-in by self-inflicted wounds in a 3-2 defeat.
It was just Ottawa’s second win in its last 14 games.
The Rangers again dug themselves into an early hole, only to produce a too-little, too-late comeback charge. The reeling Senators, who came in losers of five straight games, capitalized on the Rangers’ careless puck management and positional mistakes, and then buckled down defensively in the third period.
Over the last two games the Rangers haven’t sustained enough offensive zone time and haven’t generated enough net-front traffic. Two rough games can be an anomaly in a long season or it can snowball into something dire.
Right now, the Blueshirts look more like the team that began the season 4-7-2 than the one that went 9-3 in November. The schedule isn’t going to get any easier, either. Next up is the Pacific Division-leading L.A. Kings and then the Boston Bruins, who have won eight of 10.
On Ottawa’s first goal, Kevin Shattenkirk forced a pass when the lane wasn’t there. Mark Stone easily picked it off and fed Bobby Ryan for a slingshot one-timer.
A hustling Michael Grabner would even the score, following a pair of terrific long-distance passes from captain Ryan McDonagh and alternate captain Mats Zuccarello.
It wasn’t long after that the Senators began swarming in front of Henrik Lundqvist. Five minutes before the second intermission, Brendan Smith mishandled the puck at his own blue line and had his stick knocked out of his hands. He then attempted to block a shot, but ended up screening Lundqvist on Cody Ceci’s goal. During the next TV timeout, Lundqvist skated over to the bench to discuss the goal with Smith.
The Rangers fell asleep at the wheel as the third period got underway. It only took eight seconds for Zack Smith to increase Ottawa’s lead to 3-1. Shattenkirk got beat along the wall by Tom Pyatt, who followed the puck into the corner and slid it to cutting Smith. Shattenkirk and Brady Skjei both decided to chase the puck, allowing the low slot to go unguarded.
Lundqvist yelled for someone to pick up Smith, but help came too late. It was an inexcusable hiccup by all five Rangers skaters.
A strong carry along the wall and a sublime feed by Chris Kreider set up Pavel Buchnevich’s tally that cut Ottawa’s advantage to a single goal. But, similar to how Ottawa eliminated New York from the playoffs last spring, Guy Boucher’s trapping system frustrated the Rangers the rest of the way and sent them home with nothing.
On a night when Lundqvist became just the 15th goalie in NHL history to record 20,000 saves, the Rangers’ star was left as helpless as backup Ondrej Pavelec was against Dallas on Monday.
As things currently stand, the Alain Vigneault era will be remembered for two things: exceptional goaltending and a supporting cast not talented enough to deliver a championship parade down the Canyon of Heroes.
It sounds like a broken record, but Lundqvist deserves better than this. Over the last two games, the Rangers have been as bad as it gets. Being intermittently good isn’t enough for a fan base that is desperate to see 35-year-old Lundqvist raise Lord Stanley’s Cup before he skates into retirement.
For too long the blemishes have been covered up by superior starting and backup goaltending. From Cam Talbot to Antti Raanta to now Pavelec, the Rangers have a way of turning backups into gold. After a mediocre start to his Rangers career, Pavelec is now sporting a .914 save percentage.
Lundqvist has been the chief reason why the Rangers averaged 103 points over Vigneault’s first four seasons. The success of this franchise always comes down to “King Henrik” dragging his team by the scruff of the neck to greater things. Lundqvist won’t lift the Stanley Cup until his supporting cast performs up to its abilities or is replaced with more talented players that can match his impassioned level of desperation.
This is New York, this is the Rangers, this is Original Six, this is a team that plays on the same ice as Messier, Richter, Leetch, Graves and the rest of the heroes of 1994. Ordinary doesn’t cut it. Ordinary doesn’t win the Stanley Cup.
The character and resiliency of this season’s squad will be revealed during six tough games over the span of two weeks — at home against Los Angeles, at Boston (second of a back-to-back), Anaheim at the Garden, at New Jersey, and home games against Toronto and Washington.
Given the parity that exists in the Metropolitan Division and in the wild card race, one really bad run can sink a team. The Rangers know that points left on the table in December can lead to a playoff-less April. They better find their “A” game soon.
Please flow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey