By Sean Hartnett
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Just past the midway point of the regular season, a juncture where they should have already gotten their act together, the Rangers are still looking like a fragile team.
Unable to win consecutive games since Nov. 21-23, the same mistakes keep re-emerging. They are taking ill-advised penalties, committing unpressured turnovers and failing to protect their goaltender’s blue paint.
These trends cannot continue if the Blueshirts wish to be playing in mid-April. Starting with Tuesday’s home meeting with the Vancouver Canucks and ending with an April 9 regular season finale against the Detroit Red Wings at MSG, only 37 games separate Tuesday and the playoffs.
Behind the cruising Washington Capitals stand the Islanders (54 points), Rangers (53) and Pittsburgh Penguins (49) — three teams vying for the remaining two automatic playoff seeds given the likelihood of Washington winning the Metropolitan Division. All three teams are even with 45 games played and are separated by just five points.
Behind the trio are the Devils (46 games played, 49 points.), Philadelphia Flyers (43, 48) and Carolina Hurricanes (47, 48). The 38-point Columbus Blue Jackets appear to be the only team out of it and, hence, stand a good chance of winning the draft lottery and landing top prospect Auston Matthews.
Given the lack of separation in the Metro, every point is going to be precious from here on. If the Rangers don’t up their game quickly, they could miss the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
All of the bad trends came back to haunt the Rangers during Sunday’s 5-2 defeat to Capitals in D.C. The Rangers’ undisciplined ways fed Washington’s red-hot 26.1-percent power play with four opportunities. The Capitals cashed in twice and the final score could have been even more lopsided given the amount of times the Blueshirts allowed Justin Williams, who finished with a hat track, and Marcus Johansson to post up unconstested in front of the crease.
A careless holding the stick penalty by Derick Brassard seemed to have a snowball effect as the Rangers kept getting in their own way. The preventable penalties disrupted the Rangers’ flow and the Caps kept getting to the crease with little resistance.
“They are one of the best power plays in the league and we didn’t help ourselves by taking too many penalties,” alternate captain Marc Staal said. “It starts there. And, then, when we do, we have to come up with some kills and some plays on the penalty kill to not let them score. It was a big part of the game tonight.”
While the Caps have one of the league’s deadliest power plays, the Rangers’ slumping penalty kill is lacking structure and aggression. A strong penalty kill is crucial for any contending team. The Blueshirts’ usually stout penalty killing has fallen into a 24th-place tie at 78.8 percent.
“I don’t think there is one common thing,” forward Rick Nash said of the penalty kill. “Ulf (Samuelsson) does a great job with it. He always has the perfect system to put forward, but it’s up to us, the players on the ice, to figure it out and do the job. Us players got to do a better job out there.”
The Rangers have surrendered power-play goals in seven of nine games. They’re going to need to get their shorthanded units back in order quickly, because it’s not just the Caps who are feasting against the Blueshirts in man-advantage situations. Any team in the league will thrive against what the Rangers are rolling out there a man down.
All four Rangers skaters aren’t playing as a cohesive unit and, perhaps more importantly, aren’t recognizing the danger of leaving the blue paint unattended.
“Speed is very important for our kill,” Samuelsson told WFAN.com in late October. “We’re looking at trigger points, we’re looking at getting loose pucks, we’re looking to attack a little bit as well on the PK. That’s the balance we’re trying to find. When there is an opportunity, you need all four skaters to recognize it at the same time. If one guy recognizes it, a lot of time there’s enough skill on the PK to make one play. When you get into your second and third play, that’s when they get rushed and make plays out of their comfort zone.”
Whether or not the Rangers raise their shorthanded play could hold the key to whether they make the big dance in mid-April.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey