Was it really a lost weekend?

Feb 27, 2022; New York, New York, USA; Vancouver Canucks right wing Vasily Podkolzin (92) hits New York Rangers defenseman Jacob Trouba (8) during the first period at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 27, 2022; New York, New York, USA; Vancouver Canucks right wing Vasily Podkolzin (92) hits New York Rangers defenseman Jacob Trouba (8) during the first period at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports /

The New York Rangers and their fans went into the weekend with a lot of expectations.  Thy were playing a road game against an archrival followed by a home game against a team currently out of the playoff picture.  While it wouldn’t be easy, the team could easily have come out with two to four points.  They ended up with none.  Is it time to man the lifeboats?  Is it time to mortgage the future for an immediate fix?  Is it time to start questioning the coach?

There’s a simple answer.  No.  Let’s look at the two games.

1-0 loss to Pittsburgh

A 1-0 road loss to one of the hottest teams in the NHL is no disgrace.  Was the fact that the Penguins had lost three in a row a reason to expect that they would roll over and lose?  They lost to Carolina and Toronto, two of the better teams in the league.  They laid an egg against the Devils, but as Ranger fans know all to well, that can happen.

The Rangers lost that game because Tristan Jarry played like the all star that he is and the Penguins power play delivered after a soft penalty call.   As good as the Rangers’ power play has been,  the Penguins have been scoring at a 27% clip since the return of Evgeni Malkin to their lineup.

In fact, we should be encouraged by the Pittsburgh game.  The team proved that they can play with the best in the NHL with tight defense and tough checking.  That was a playoff game we watched and the final score could have gone either way.

5-2 loss to Vancouver

The warning signs were obvious.  Three games in four days.  Back-to-back games.  The inevitable letdown after a playoff preview game. An “inferior” opponent, the kind of team the Rangers don’t lose to.  The first game for the Rangers’ goalie in a full month.

Still, the Rangers came out like gangbusters in the first period.  Five shots on goal and seven shot attempts in the first three minutes of play. They won seven of the first nine faceoffs (an indication of intensity).

Even after Tanner Pearson scored the first goal for the Canucks, the Rangers didn’t let up. They finished the first period with 27 shot attempts,  13 shots on goal and nine high danger scoring chances.  The Rangers score first and the game is very, very different.  They are 20-3-2 when they score first in a game.  They are 24-7-2 when they are leading or tied after one period.

Unfortunately, for the second straight game, the opposing goaltender was the determining factor. Thatcher Demko stood on his head, repelling every Ranger shot attempt.  He was outstanding.

The Rangers came out with very little energy in the second period and were overwhelmed by the Canucks.  In pre-game interviews, the Canucks were focused on the fact that the Rangers had played a tough game on Saturday.   They knew that coming out of that first period with a two goal lead and killing two Ranger power plays was unexpected and they took advantage.

Despite Demko’s stellar goaltending and an awful second period, the Rangers came to life after finally scoring in the third period.  They had the Canucks on their heels and fans can only wonder “what if” when the officials failed to call an obvious foul on Barclay Goodrow’s breakaway.

Though it was too little too late, the fact that the Ranger were able to get up off the floor and make it a game is just another example of the team’s belief that they can come back.  The Rangers have 17 wins after trailing in a game, second only to Colorado’s 18.  They know that they can do it.

Warning signs

Are there reasons to be concerned after two straight losses?  Of course, but only if the team cannot get back on a winning track.  St. Louis will be a stern test and the Devils on Friday are always a challenge.  Then, a four-game road trip will be daunting.   The good news is these games are all before the March 21 trade deadline and they will go a long way towards determining what action Chris Drury will take.

Here are some of the questions as we go into this next stretch of Rangers hockey.

  1. The Rangers’ second line is struggling.  Though he scored against the Canucks, Ryan Strome’s contributions have been minimal. Dryden Hunt plays energetically, but is not the ideal right wing.  All of this has resulted in Artemi Panarin’s efforts to try to do it all. As a result, he is forcing passes and making bad decisions.  With an excellent shot, Panarin should just shoot more since his linemates cannot take advantage of his passes.
  2. When is Kaapo Kakko coming back? He was seen at a recent game with his left wrist wrapped in what could be a hard cast.  The Rangers need to know if he is the answer on the right wing of Strome and Panarin and they need that answer before the deadline.
  3. Gerard Gallant likes to go with the hot hand and he was very pleased with the Rangers play against Washington and Pittsburgh.  That resulted in two healthy scratches for Filip Chytil.  If Greg McKegg is “better” than Chytil, the Rangers need to radically rethink their future plans up the middle.
  4. How much will Gallant ride Igor Shesterkin?  The Rangers have only three more sets of back-to-back games meaning he could start as many as 26 of the last 29 games.  Is that a recipe for burnout?  Which leads us to our next question.
  5. Can Alexandar Georgiev be a back up goalie who starts sporadically?   He plays well when he plays regularly.  As a spot starter he has been pretty awful.  He has started three games in the last 37 days, allowing 14 goals with a save percentage of .837.  Compare that to when he replaced the injured Shesterkin, starting six of eight games.  He allowed 12 goals on 175 shots, a .940 save percentage.

In conclusion

It’s been an interesting and rewarding season for the Rangers, but they have paid the price for that success.  Being neck deep in a fight for playoff positioning and with relatively few injuries the Rangers have used the same core of players throughout the season, most notably at forward.

As a result, there has been no opportunity for anyone to emerge as a surprise player on this team.   All of the chances to succeed on the bottom six have gone to the likes of Greg McKegg, Julian Gauthier and Dryden Hunt.   Anthony Greco, Tim Gettinger and Jonny Brodzinski have barely gotten a look, while Morgan Barron is barely seeing nine minutes of action in the 12 games he has played.

Because they are winning, the Rangers are  reluctant to see if Barron, Greco or Brodzinksi along with Ty Ronning or Lauri Pajuniemi can provide some offensive spark to a offensively moribund bottom six.   That’s why the team hasn’t come up with their version of Mason Marchment, Michael Bunting, Brandon Hagel or Travis Boyd. It may not exist in the organization, but it would be good to know.

We understand that you don’t mess with success and we should rely on the expertise of the Rangers’ brain trust to know what they have, but how much would it hurt to see if these players could do better than the seven goals and 19 points that Gauthier, Hunt and McKegg have produced in their combined total of 121 man games this season?

Despite the Rangers’ unexpected success, it’s important to remember that it was unexpected.  The rebuild is over, but the team is still being molded into a Stanley Cup contender and it is still a flawed roster.  They are going to make the playoffs, but shouldn’t they use the rest of this season to see what they have in pipeline?

In the meantime, let’s not lose sleep over a lost weekend, because it wasn’t lost.  We learned a lot about the Rangers’ ability to match up with a top team and we saw once  again that the Rangers have heart.  You can’t win them all.

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