By Daniel Friedman
» More Columns
Stuck in a 3-1 hole, the New York Rangers are on the verge of hitting the golf course much earlier than expected.
Losing in the second round would be really bad, but how the Blueshirts have gotten themselves into this predicament has been a lot worse. I think it’s fair to say that many have this best-of-seven against the Washington Capitals going the distance, but at this point, getting there will be a daunting task for the Rangers.
People often look at one player or factor when trying to understand who or what is to blame for a team’s demise, whether it’s an injury, a slump or my personal favorite: the goaltender.
But it’s never that simple. It’s never one player or factor. You don’t lose a series because of one element or circumstance, and just because your goaltender gives up more goals than the one manning the opposite net, it doesn’t automatically mean he’s at fault.
In the case of the Rangers, some have suggested that Mats Zuccarello’s absence is the reason behind their scoring woes.
One missing player. That’s the rationale.
Never mind the fact that the Rangers still have Rick Nash, Martin St. Louis, Derek Stepan, Derick Brassard, Chris Kreider and Kevin Hayes, all of which are capable of producing offensively. No, that’s irrelevant.
Granted, Zuccarello is a very creative and talented forward who does make an impact on this team’s offense. That does play in here to an extent, but there’s still plenty of depth on this roster.
Everyone’s suddenly convinced the Rangers don’t have any. I find that notion to be quite ridiculous, because they finished third in the NHL in goals-per-game this season and had six players besides Zuccarello with at least 45 points – four of which had better numbers than the diminutive Norwegian.
Lest we also forget that the Rangers lost Henrik Lundqvist to an injury for a significant portion of the season and didn’t miss a beat.
And that’s what great teams do — they overcome adversity and find ways to win hockey games in these types of situations. If you lose one forward and stop scoring, it’s either because you’re horrendous or because players aren’t stepping up. I refuse to accept the logic that the Blueshirts are not talented enough to pick up the slack in Zuccarello’s absence.
Instead of focusing on the players who aren’t in the lineup, perhaps we’re better off focusing on those who are.
The most notable of those is Nash, who’s actually tied for the team lead in points in these playoffs.
There have been two prevalent schools of thought in terms of assessing Nash’s career playoff performance. Either he’s terrible/overrated/insert degrading adjective here, or he’s been working really hard and has just been unlucky.
In reality, both of these interpretations are inaccurate.
To say that he’s been horrendous isn’t fair, because Nash has produced to an extent this postseason – he does have five assists and six points in nine games. He’s also done the little things and has had some good chances. However, to give him a pass because of that is also unfair, because you have to hold him to a higher standard.
You expect Dominic Moore to do the little things; you expect Kreider or Hayes to get scoring chances. But Nash is a superstar, and so he’s expected to deliver – as he should be. He’s had some good chances, but he hasn’t had that same dominating presence.
At the end of the day, this is a results-driven game. You either get the job done or you don’t.
If this were an isolated incident, perhaps I would be more inclined to write it off as a fluke. But Nash now has 50 playoff games under his belt and just six goals, as well as an unimpressive 24 points. You can only justify his lack of goal production for so long.
Has he just been unlucky or unable to get the right bounces for the majority of those 50 games? I find that very hard to believe. At a certain point, if you continue with that rationale, you just lose credibility.
To be honest, Nash’s contract has very little to do with it. Yes, the Rangers paid a premium to get him and are paying an equal premium in dollars and cents as they did in prospects and players, but they brought him in to fill a specific role. They brought him in to score goals.
Right now, he’s just not getting the job done. And in 46 postseason appearances with the Rangers, he’s scored only five goals. Twist it however you want, but he has not delivered.
The most accurate assessment of Nash right now is that he’s been solid, but he’s not played at the level he’s capable of or expected to. I think it’s entirely valid to demand better than solid from him, because he’s supposed to be great.
But again, you can’t blame a team’s demise on one player. Criticizing Nash is fair, and he has played a role in the Rangers’ scoring woes, but he is not the only one at fault.
St. Louis has no goals and just three points, while Stepan has mustered only four points this postseason. Kreider has just two goals and no assists. Keith Yandle, who was brought aboard to provide offense from the blue line, has a measly two points.
I think the Blueshirts have been kept to the outside in the offensive zone for much of this series, and they’ve simply failed to adjust. Washington has done a masterful defensive job, and goaltender Braden Holtby has been fantastic. That said though, I don’t see the Rangers challenging him from in tight as often as they should be.
I see a team that’s stubbornly insisting on making those stretch passes and fancy plays work, despite the fact that the Capitals have clogged up those lanes all series long. I say “stubbornly,” because the Rangers have shown they’re a versatile hockey club that can play any style you want. In this series, however, they often haven’t responded to those complexion changes and it’s cost them.
The Rangers aren’t down 3-1 because of one player or because of “puck luck.” They’re down 3-1 because they haven’t been able to shift into high gear.
If you want to blame it on injuries or bounces, you go right ahead.
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter at @DFriedmanOnNYI