By Sean Hartnett
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A catalog of errors doomed the Rangers to another disappointing shutout defeat on Thursday night at TD Garden. Including their 3-0 loss in Boston, the Rangers have now been outscored 6-0 over the past six periods. Their goal drought has been extended to exactly 121:00 – and nearly 166 minutes if you were to exclude Rick Nash’s empty-netter against the Sharks on Jan. 10.
The first two goals couldn’t have come easier for the Bruins. Constant defensive breakdowns made life difficult for Rangers netminder Cam Talbot. After losing a defensive zone face-off cleanly to Patrice Bergeron, Rangers center Derick Brassard failed to stay with his man. Bergeron beat Brassard to a loose rebound to give the Bruins a 1-0 lead four minutes into the first period.
Four Rangers were puck watching on the Bruins’ second goal at 2:49 of the second period. Carl Hagelin, Lee Stempniak, Dan Boyle and captain Ryan McDonagh drifted toward Torey Krug and allowed David Krejci to camp out unmanned at the doorstep. Krug executed a fake shot pass between Stempniak and Hagelin directly to the blade of a wide-open Krejci. The Czech center tapped the puck past Talbot with ease.
McDonagh and Boyle uncharacteristically committed frequent sloppy passes and giveaways. The pair of offensively skilled, smooth-skating defensemen struggled to transition the puck from defense to attack. Lately, McDonagh’s performances have dipped. Captain Mac is without a point in the past five games.
Boyle and McDonagh are expected to lead the rush, make crisp outlet passes and offer a threat in the offensive zone through creativity and mobility. The Rangers’ power play has fizzled to 0 for 4 in their past two defeats.
RANGERS MISSING STEPAN’S INFLUENCE
Just like in Tuesday’s 3-0 home loss to the Isles, the Rangers struggled mightily at the face-off dot and spent most of the night pinned in their own zone. Even though injured center Derek Stepan is not adept at winning face-offs, his intelligent defensive positioning and savvy playmaking was greatly missed against the dominant Bruins.
Earlier this month, Stempniak spoke about the difference Stepan makes when healthy. Stepan originally missed the first 12 games of the season after fracturing his left fibula during training camp conditioning drills.
“He’s had a real calming influence since coming back,” Stempniak said. “He plays both ends of the ice really well. He’s really cerebral out there. He’s patient, he thinks the game really well. He doesn’t make many mistakes at all.”
All season long, the Rangers (24-13-4) have looked like two different teams when Stepan is and isn’t in the lineup. Through 28 games played, the 24-year-old center has scored six goals and collected 21 assists. He’s just below a point-per-game at 0.96 P/GP. Stepan leads all Rangers forwards in minutes per game at 18:09 TOI/GP.
Head coach Alain Vigneault hasn’t offered specifics on Stepan’s upper-body injury. He has maintained that Stepan is “day-to-day.” Stepan appeared to receive a slash on his right hand from Islanders winger Matt Martin in the first period of Tuesday’s defeat.
The Rangers need their all-situation alternate captain back ASAP. Stepan traveled to Boston and will continue accompanying the team for the remainder of their road trip. The Rangers will face the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena on Friday night. A morning skate is not scheduled. The Rangers will conclude their three-game road trip on Sunday afternoon at Consol Energy Center against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
DO THE RANGERS NEED AN INFLUX OF BIG BODIES?
Many observers, including MSG analyst and former Ranger Ron Duguay, have suggested that the Blueshirts would struggle if matched up against a big-bodied team in the playoffs like the Bruins or Isles.
“If they were to play those teams in the playoffs, you have to ask yourself – are they big enough and strong enough to match up against these teams in a seven-game series,” Duguay said during the post-game broadcast. “Are they? Or are they not?”
No, physicality isn’t the problem. Vigneault and the Rangers can win their way, which is pairing up-tempo speed with quick, crisp passing and puck possession.
“We want them thinking offense,” Vigneault said on Wednesday. “We want them thinking the right way to play.”
The most important thing Vigneault has done for the Rangers is freeing them from the limitations of John Tortorella’s outdated dump and chase, defensive shell system. AV’s system took them all the way to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final.
Why go backwards? Acquiring a slew of big-bodied tough guys would only slow down the blazing Blueshirts. It’s all about quickly transitioning from defense to offense and executing better with the puck on their sticks. The Rangers don’t need to start suddenly copying the blueprint of the “Big, Bad Bruins.”
Follow Sean on Twitter – @HartnettHockey.
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