Blanked to the brink, It’s on the Rangers stars to save the season

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Akin to their quick start in game four, New Jersey didn’t take long to strike on the scoreboard. A Vincent Trocheck faceoff win incidentally turned into a shot on the net, which Igor Shesterkin stopped. However, the rebound popped out to Ondřej Palát, whose shot deflected off Fox’s stick and over Shesterkin’s head to give the Devils a quick 1-0 lead a mere 39 seconds into the contest. “The hockey gods were on our side,” Ruff said. “We got a little bit of puck luck.”

From there, New Jersey sat back and suffocated New York in the neutral zone, just as they did in game four. While the Rangers brought more physicality to their play, it wasn’t enough to bedevil the red-hot Devils. “I have no problem with our effort tonight”, Rangers head coach Gerard Gallant said. “The Devils played their best game of the series.”

Typically, you would hear a coach who called his team “lazy” after a 3-1 loss in game four, expand on that in a 4-0 defeat. But not Gallant. “I have no problem with the way we played. It was not like how I felt the other night.” Those positive comments echoed the sentiment around the locker room following a night that only got worse for the boys in blue.

Through the first two games of the series, what particularly stood out on the Rangers’ side was the play of their special teams. They had successfully found Chris Kreider for his trademark deflection power-play goals on four of their first seven-man advantages. On the flip side, the penalty kill had gone 7 for 8, even limiting the Devils to no shots on goal in each of their four power plays in game one. But things changed midway through game three.

The turning point came with the Rangers leading 1-0 after Kreider’s first even-strength goal of the series 3:39 into the second period. The goal gave his team a lead against Akira Schmid, who was making his NHL playoff debut. Timo Meier landed on Igor Shesterkin, and the Rangers netminder responded by punching Meier and was penalized for it. At the other end of the play, Artemi Panarin and Kevin Bahl were boxed for roughing.

New Jersey wound up with the man advantage and cashed in when Jack Hughes netted his second of the series, putting his team on the board. That tally would prove to be the only special teams one of the game, as Schmid made 35 saves, the Rangers went 0 for 5 on the Power Play, and Dougie Hamilton scored the overtime winner, giving the Devils a lifeline which they haven’t let go of.

“I think we just lost the series,” a Rangers fan who was assumed at the time to be overreacting
but now deserves credit said. “The Devils have momentum, and if the Rangers don’t win game four, they will lose all the momentum, and it’s unlikely they’ll be able to get it back after that.”
If the Rangers want to give themselves a chance of doing so, they must convert on their man-advantage opportunities, which they have yet to do in their last 13 attempts.

The repeated failures are partly due to the Devils tying up Kreider in the slot, getting sticks in passing lanes, and blocking shots. But they’re also due to the Rangers being too predictable. Mika Zibanejad was back in his office, the left circle. Except while it worked last year in the postseason, en route to him accumulating 24 points in 20 games, and during the regular season, where he led the team with 20 power-play goals, it has yet to come to fruition in this series.

The center has often sent that shot wide, or Schmid has stopped it. So what did the Rangers do? They returned to it instead of putting their helmets together and trying something else.
The attempt backfired, as an Artemi Panarin turnover led to a New Jersey odd-man rush.

Dawson Mercer deposited Erik Haula’s one-timer feed for a shorthanded tally, extending New Jersey’s lead to 3-0 at 13:32 of the second period. The goal followed Haula scoring his first of two on the night, pouncing on a rebound off a Mercer point shot for a power-play marker 3:27 into the middle frame.

“Special teams, right?” Kreider said. “It’s something we had in our favor early in the series and didn’t go our way tonight. That’s got to be better. I think we did some of the things we talked about (more shots on net and getting pucks and bodies in front), but that’s hockey, unfortunately.” What’s also unfortunate is being eliminated from the playoffs, which can happen to the Rangers as early as Saturday night. However, if they play with passion and energy from the start, they may have a chance at forcing a game seven on Monday.