The first-place New York Rangers (26-12-2) have differed from the powerhouse we grew accustomed to. An 8-8-1 record over the last 17 games? That's not the unstoppable Blueshirts we signed up for. The slide has sunk them to third in the eastern conference, behind the Boston Bruins (24-8-9) and red-hot Florida Panthers (27-12-2), who've won nine straight games. Also on their heels in the Metropolitan Division are the Carolina Hurricanes (23-13-5). They are three points behind the Blueshirts courtesy of a 7-1-2 stretch, which includes a 6-1 beatdown of Broadway's heroes last week at Madison Square Garden.
Inconsistency has been the culprit. Over the past five weeks, they've lost by three or more goals six times. Even Monday night's 6-3 loss to the high-flying Vancouver Canucks, the league's goal-scoring champs, wasn't a one-time slip-up. The Rangers are 4-5-1 over the last ten games, and that once comfy top spot is slipping.
Fading Fortunes: Defensive Lapses and Offensive Puzzle Pieces in Disarray:
Turnovers, bad decisions, wonky passes– it's a broken record. They're doing more cross-ice passes than straightforward moves. There have been positional errors and high-danger chances for the opponents, with Igor Shesterkin contending with all of it. The theme continued in Thursday's 5-2 loss at the St Louis Blues.
The effort was there offensively, as the Rangers peppered Jordan Binnington with 43 shots, similar to the 42-shot barrage they sent Thatcher Demko's way on Monday. However, it was the defense lapses that crushed them. They didn't allow many chances, but they were loud. The worst team in the league defending the rush was at it again. The Blueshirts allowed three more in transition, two in eight minutes, one coming from the league's worst power play, who finished with two goals on the evening. Jordan Kyrou toyed with them, recording a hat trick.
It's not a newfound issue. The trend began with a 6- 2 defeat at the Ottawa Senators on December 5, which, back then, felt like a punch in the gut. Sure, it's cool that the Rangers get back up when knocked down, but there have been way too many knockouts for a team that a solid structure should back.
Defense is the Achilles' heel, not just one or two players but the entire team. Even Adam Fox, who scored Thursday, hasn't been the same since a lower-body injury and is feeling the heat. K'Andre Miller's inconsistency gives everyone a headache, and Braden Schneider isn't having the smoothest ride with Eric Gustafsson.
Yet, amid the chaos, Shesterkin and Johnathan Quick have kept the team in games. Yes, they've allowed softies themselves and aren't exempt from blame. Teams sometimes need their netminder to bail them out sometimes, which hasn't happened recently. It's the opposite in Seattle, where Joey Daccord has anchored the Kraken's eight-game heater. However, these losses would be much worse if it weren't for their heroics.
New York's defensive blunders have resulted in opponents scoring quickly and frequently. They were exposed by a high-flying, first-place Vancouver team (28-11-3) who swept their NY/NJ trip, scoring six goals apiece, while backstopped by a stifling defense and the Vezina-front runner in Demko. Under Rick Tocchett, they've gone from a team that missed the playoffs last season to a juggernaut out west. Yet the best team in the Western Conference is the league-leading Winnipeg Jets (28-9-4), on a franchise-best eight-game winning streak.
They've done it by playing simple but aggressive north-south games under Rick Bowness, the same style Peter Laviolette's Blueshirts imposed during their 18-4-1 start. Now, old habits from last season under Gerard Gallant have returned. That style works out west where the scalding Edmonton Oilers have won nine straight themselves and are 19-6 since former Hartford Wolf Pack coach and Rangers interim coach Kris Knoblauch took over. The heater includes a 4-3 comeback win last month against at Madison Square Garden. The players said they got to east-west happy after they let a third-period lead slip away. Newsflash, they still are.
It doesn't help that the bottom six is a bit of a puzzle, as Tyler Pitlick is injured. The Rangers tried to give Brennan Othmann a look but quickly realized he was not doing much on the fourth line and would be better off back in the AHL. Due to Hartford's depleted roster, it wasn't Adam Edstrom, Alex Bezile, or Riley Nash; instead, Jake Lyscehen played in Thursday's game. Meanwhile, the top six are incomplete without some key players, and the absence of Kappo Kakko and Filip Chytil is taking its toll.
Truthfully, the Artemi Panarin-Vincent Trocheck-Alexis Lafreniere line is the backbone of this team's offense at even strength. The right-wing position on the top line with Mika Zibanjead and Chris Kreider is a wild card due to the underperforming Blake Wheeler. Kakko's imminent return might change things up.
Laviolette did some shuffling to keep that competitive spirit alive. Panarin doubling up on the Zibanejad line Monday was a testament to that strategy. Yet it's not the fault of the coach who'll be going to the All-Star game in Toronto. The players need to buy in again.
They must address those defensive flaws, particularly off the rush, where the Blueshirts rank dead last. It could be a better look for a team with Stanley Cup aspirations. The dynasty Tampa Bay Lightning, 2022 Colorado Avalanche, and 2023 Vegas Golden Knights were all in the top 5 in that category. Defense wins championships.
Assistant coach Phil Housley may suggest a change of the pairings, like Ryan Lindgren with Miller and Fox with Jacob Trouba for a few games. Then, consider going back to the usual.
Trials and tribulations are part of the game; the best find ways to rise above. Here's hoping the Blueshirts fix their glaring weakness and find their groove soon.