The struggling Rangers can no longer rest on last year
There was appropriate solemnity and concern on the part of the Rangers on the following Tuesday night their surprising 4-3 Garden loss to the Islandersin which they held a 3-1 third-period lead after their most pressing first 40 minutes since opening night.
But of all the remarks inside the postgame room, the most telling came from Adam Fox, who said: “We can’t rest on last year. We can’t say, ‘We did it last year.’
“It has been the same. We carry it for 40 or 30 or 50 [minutes]. We need to right the ship here.”
Nobody at this point cares about the 2021-22 Rangers run through May to mid-June. This seems as old as their last Stanley Cup. This group no longer exists. This 2022-23 team, which entered the season carrying the expectations created by this team last season, has failed to approach this unenviable challenge.
At this point, though, that should be the last of anyone’s worries. The Rangers have not been able to meet the minimum expectations. They have not established anything as a unit. The Blues are slipping, having won just three of their last 10 games (3-4-3) and now face a stretch in which they will play six of their next seven away games.
“I can’t pinpoint anything, but I think we were sitting back too much and trying not to lose,” said Vincent Trocheck, whose power-play backhand from his knees had given the Rangers a 3-1 lead at 13:47 of the second period. “I’m a little worried, but I don’t think it’s a personnel thing. I believe in the group. I know what we’re capable of.”
If so, then Trocheck could be a small group. The fact is, we don’t really know what this group is capable of 14 games into the season. The Blues played fast and hard through the first two periods. They were physical and on the puck in forcing the Islanders into back-to-back minor penalties in an 11:59 span, tying the first two periods. Igor Shesterkin has been sharp in goal.
But everything turned around when the Islanders’ Adam Pelech scored from the slot 14 seconds into the third period, completing a drive and a drive down the goal line without much opposition. From that point on, the Rangers seemed to be clinging to life, trying to make the clock tick faster. He didn’t do it.
Inevitably and undoubtedly, the visitors – 7-1 in their round of 16 and 9-5 overall – tied it on Brock Nelson’s power play at 12:46 with Filip Chytil in the box to hook. It wasn’t so much that the Islanders took over in the third period as that the Rangers defaulted.
It certainly didn’t help referees Brandon Blandina and Kelly Sutherland either missed or ignored Oliver Wahlstrom’s Kaapo Kakko Journey as the Rangers wing had possession along the defensive boards just two minutes after Nelson’s equalizer. It was just seconds later that the Islanders capitalized on an unmarked Anders Lee score from a tight end at 14:30.
“It’s very difficult for me to give an answer to explain it,” said Artemi Panarin, whose game continues to be marred by too many turnovers and broken plays. “A few mistakes can be the difference. It has to change.”
Wholesale line changes made by Rangers coach Gerard Gallant, who did not offer an opinion on the missed call, seemingly dancing around the issue, produced the desired results through the first two periods.
Sammy Blais played his most impressive game. Alexis Lafreniere, left with Trocheck and a particularly notable Jimmy Vesey, played with a moxie that is sometimes reserved for the game against the Islanders. Vitali Kravtsov played with confidence, got through it unscathed and was in the thick of things with Chytil’s score at 11:36 of the first. Chris Kreider went to the net and got a power-play goal off a backdoor post from Panarin.
But it all came to a halt in the third period. There was perhaps one glorious chance, Vesey’s breakaway that was denied by Semyon Varlamov with the Blueshirts up 3-2 at 7:42. Other than that, the team that entered the third period with a lead for the first time since Game 4 against the Ducks on Oct. 17, didn’t know what to do with it.
“[Not] play 60, that’s a mental thing. We’re in a bit of a rut. It’s a confidence thing,” Trocheck said. “We have a lot of young guys, but everybody can wrestle with confidence. A lot of this game is mental. When you win games and get yourself in order, that gives us confidence and a swagger.” .
At this point, the Rangers have not earned the swagger. There’s nothing to fall for, not even the Vezina Trophy winner in net.
Even in what looked like a good night, Shesterkin finished with an .846 save percentage while allowing four goals on 26 shots, the fifth time in 10 starts that he was below .900. This is for those who still need convincing that this isn’t last year.
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