By Sean Hartnett
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Teams tend to relax after clinching. It’s human nature. For two straight games, the Rangers have let up by not matching the desperation of opponents fighting for their playoff lives.
It was a weekend to forget for Rangers fans. A returning Henrik Lundqvist stood helplessly in net during Saturday’s 4-2 defeat to the Boston Bruins at TD Garden. While the officiating was horrendous, there’s no doubt this game was lost via the Rangers’ careless puck management rather than a catalog of egregious calls.
The Rangers’ error-prone ways spilled into their Sunday matinée matchup with Hart Trophy candidate Alex Ovechkin and the hungry Washington Capitals. The desperation wasn’t there for the second straight game. Once again, poor decisions and frequent giveaways were the Rangers’ undoing in Sunday’s 5-2 loss.
“Today they had the will to win and we didn’t have that,” goaltender Cam Talbot said. “They had the killer instinct.”
Head coach Alain Vigneault hinted that the Rangers might have been out of gas after back-to-back afternoon games and a span of six games in nine days.
“There is no doubt (in) the third period it didn’t seem like we had a lot of gas in the tank,” Vigneault said. “Certainly it seemed to affect our execution on the ice. At the end of the day, we had a couple of good looks that we didn’t score on. They were able to score on our mistakes in the third period.
“A lot of mistakes we made in the third from the back end. There were some obvious better chances with time. Also, our forwards had better decisions to make through the neutral zone, which we didn’t, which made us spend a lot of time in our own end. I don’t know if it was the energy level, but obviously our execution was way off in the third.”
Now, it’s up to Vigneault to refocus his team on the goal of securing home-ice advantage and winning the Presidents’ Trophy.
“In my estimation, and I’m sure in my players’ estimation, there is still a lot to play for,” Vigneault said. “We are playing for home-ice advantage, we haven’t secured that. You also want to go into the playoffs playing the right way. (There was) a lot of hockey on our plate this week. I am not using that as an excuse, but it’s the reality of the situation. We seem to come up short a couple times; just need to refocus here and get ready for Winnipeg.”
Winger Rick Nash believes the Rangers’ execution is lacking.
“We’re just not playing our system,” Nash said. “When we’re playing well we’re getting pucks deep, having no turnovers. I can tell just watching from the bench there are a lot of turnovers. We are making it hard on ourselves.”
Captain Ryan McDonagh sees this as a chance to reevaluate mistakes and reinforce positive habits.
“It’s been a little while here since we’ve lost two in a row,” McDonagh said. “It’s a little chance for us to unfortunately look at examples of what not to do and how not to play. Obviously puck management, and we talk about that a lot, it has got to be a lot better throughout the game.”
This might be the wake-up call the 101-point Rangers needed ahead of their playoff charge. Their two-game road swing against Winnipeg and the Minnesota Wild will give the Rangers the chance to stamp out the mistakes ahead of their return home to play the rival Devils at MSG on Saturday.
What Rangers fans have seen over the past two games is probably a blip. This team has shown an ability to self-correct all season long.
Between now and the playoffs, the Rangers have a sizable checklist in front of them. They will need to iron out their mistakes, get Lundqvist up to speed, figure out how to spark their struggling power play and reincorporate Martin St. Louis and Kevin Klein into the lineup once they’re given the green light.
It might sound like a lot … but this Rangers team has passed every test along the way, remaining in the hunt for the best record in the NHL.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.