By Sean Hartnett
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Sloppy defensive zone turnovers doomed the Rangers to a third consecutive defeat to the rival Islanders on Tuesday night. What the Isles did successfully in previous victories against the Blueshirts carried over into the first period of the 4-1 victory at Nassau Coliseum.
From the very start, the tenacious Isles harassed the Rangers, forcing the visitors to cough up the puck in dangerous areas. The Isles peppered Henrik Lundqvist with 17 first-period shots and went into the first intermission with a 1-0 lead. Had Lundqvist not risen to his very best, the Isles probably would have claimed a 3-0 first period advantage.
“They came out and executed real well,” Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault said. “They forced us into a multitude of turnovers with the puck, and they got some grade-A opportunities.”
“A lot of their opportunities were on puck decisions from our group,” he added. “We need to be a lot better than that, especially against such a good team.”
The Isles looked like a team in sync, executing tic-tac-toe passes. Even without the presence of injured top-line winger Kyle Okposo, the Isles were able to roll four lines that provided aggressiveness and a nose for the net. When it was all over, Isles fans serenaded Lundqvist with chants of “Hen-rik, Hen-rik” and taunted Rangers fans with cries of “You can’t beat us!”
For the Rangers, this defeat was similar to their 3-0 loss to the Boston Bruins on Jan. 15 at TD Garden. In both games, the Blueshirts committed frequent defensive breakdowns and careless turnovers.
There have been a lot of calls for Rangers general manager Glen Sather to acquire big-bodied skaters capable of matching the physicality of the Isles and Bruins. Whether you’re a physical team, a finesse team or any combination of the two, bad turnovers and a lack of defensive structure are a recipe for disaster.
The Rangers are a team that wins with fast legs, puck possession and creativity. They don’t need to start copying the Bruins’ blueprint or begin making silly deals to address a perceived requirement of toughness. The rival Pittsburgh Penguins weakened their lineup on Tuesday by trading responsible two-way center Marcel Goc to the St. Louis Blues for a feistier but reckless alternative in Maxim Lapierre.
Acquiring rugged players with limited offensive ability continues to be a curious obsession for a number of NHL GMs. For years, Sather has sought to have at least one agitating, physical forward with a willingness to drop the gloves. Donald Brashear, Derek Boogaard, John Scott, Mike Rupp, Taylor Pyatt, Arron Asham and Dan Carcillo all fit into the category of slow-moving tough guys who offered little value beyond pugilistic proficiency.
The latest player to fit the mold is 31-year-old winger Tanner Glass. From Day 1, Rangers fans rightfully questioned the logic in awarding a player with a reputation for possession issues and positional flaws a three-year, $4.35 million contract. Glass is eating $1.45 million of cap space per season and is offering the Blueshirts very little bang for their buck. His arrival had much to do with Vigneault’s recommendation, as A.V. previously coached Glass in Vancouver.
Back on Jan. 14, Vigneault spoke of Glass’ weaknesses.
“When he’s on the ice, we need to spend a little bit of time in the offensive zone. He’s aware of that,” Vigneault said. “He goes to the net hard, but we need to spend more time with the puck in any zone than chasing the puck.”
There’s no reason why prospering forward J.T. Miller — or the capable, yet streaky scorer Lee Stempniak — should be sacrificed for Glass’ inclusion in the lineup.
Strangely, Sather opted to ship a superior fourth liner in Derek Dorsett to the Vancouver Canucks for a third-round pick on the eve of the 2014 NHL Draft, then went ahead and signed Glass to an albatross contract days later when free agency opened on July 1. Dorsett’s cap hit is only slightly higher at $1.63 million and he’s in the final year of his contract.
The Rangers must stay away from the temptation of retooling their roster by dealing away young talent and/or picks for lumbering agitators. An example of a more effective fourth liner is 23-year-old Jesper Fast. The Swedish winger is growing into a valuable two-way forward. Fast’s defensive IQ is impressive and he’s learning how to effectively use his 6-foot, 185-pound frame. His intelligent positional sense hasn’t translated into consistent offensive production, but that could come in time. Fast is a quick skater and has a skilled pair of hands.
Starting with the Montreal Canadiens’ visit to MSG on Thursday, the Rangers’ schedule is going to become packed as January turns to February. Sather and his scouting staff will continue to closely evaluate the Rangers’ roster in the coming weeks. There are ways to bolster to Blueshirts. Seeking a bunch of tough guys isn’t the route worth taking.
Right now, Islanders fans are going to be puffing out their chests and singing the praises of their first-place team. Why shouldn’t they? The Isles have made Nassau Coliseum their fortress by winning their first 10 home games against Metropolitan Division opponents.
The battle for first place in the Metro is going to be a three-horse race between the Isles, Penguins and Rangers. Despite the Isles’ dominance of divisional foes, there will be twists and turns. Rangers fans should have complete faith in their team’s ability to self-correct and push for the top spot.
Follow Sean on Twitter — @HartnettHockey.