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You don’t want to make sweeping generalizations off one game, even (or not even) one as bad as this 6-1 back-of-the-hand dismissal by the Islanders that the Rangers suffered at the Coliseum on Tuesday. So we won’t.
But what about three games within 12 days, the three against the Islanders on April 9, 11 and this one, in which the Blueshirts went 1-1-1? How about zeroing in on those three, separated by the quartet against the J.V. Devils, the way that management never quite zeroed in on those three games under the bubble last August against Carolina.
Because in these three games against the Islanders, the Rangers scored a sum of seven goals, one into an empty net. The scorers against a goaltender were Alexis Lafreniere, Colin Blackwell, K’Andre Miller, Libor Hajek, Brendan Smith, Kevin Rooney.
That means: none for Artemi Panarin, none for Mika Zibanejad (who got the empty-netter), none for Chris Kreider, none for Ryan Strome, none for Pavel Buchnevich.
None for the Big Five, who in this one bled goals against, with Zibanejad, Kreider and Buchnevich all on for three with Panarin and Strome on for two through a team-wide defensive performance so deficient it harkened back to the worst days of Alain Vigneault’s tenure.
And no, this cannot be blamed on the fact that Jacob Trouba left the game for good at 9:15 of the first period, all but certainly concussed after banging his head on the glass and/or stanchion while absorbing a clean, heavy hit from Matt Martin.
It was a major blow, and Trouba’s expected absence for the foreseeable future will certainly amount to a significant handicap as the Rangers continue what seems an inevitably futile chase for a playoff spot, but the injury can’t provide cover for such a puny performance.
The Rangers ride their Top Five. Everyone knows it. That includes Barry Trotz, coach of the Islanders. Imagine, Bryan Trottier is no longer the franchise’s automatic headline “Trots/Trotz.” But Trotz knew it just as ’Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour knew it last summer. You game plan to take away their time and space. You game plan against Panarin, then Zibanejad.
These are elite players. But they have been elite in the regular season. Not one of them other than Kreider has met the test in the playoff crucible, perhaps for lack of opportunity, but nevertheless, there is no track record of success in the postseason.
And this was kind of like a preview of a postseason hockey matchup. One team was in its element. The other was not.
“We just weren’t playing the way we needed to if we were going to have a chance,” head coach David Quinn said. “I thought we were sloppy, I thought we were too high risk, too east-west, and weren’t playing fast enough. Once Troubs went out, our level of play dropped even more.”
There was little puck support in either zone. The Rangers were pinned for shifts at a time and were harried into turnovers while unable to apply more than token pressure in the offensive zone. Breakouts were haphazard. It was a total eclipse of the club’s collective head, if not its heart, as well.
“That’s a playoff-ready team,” Smith said. “They just lost two in a row [before winning on Sunday] so they were hungry and they were much hungrier than we were.”
The question now is the same as the one that popped in the aftermath of the bubble, and that is: Can the Rangers’ creative, talent-based approach to the game succeed in the playoffs? Can this wonderfully entertaining, albeit often infuriating, style thrive when lanes are shut down and their skaters are forced into a bottleneck?
Not on this night, where it sure didn’t help that Ryan Lindgren and Miller were so far off their respective games to be almost unrecognizable and that third-pair defenseman Anthony Bitetto, confoundingly in for the second straight game at Libor Hajek’s expense, was overmatched. But, honestly, the Rangers were not routed because of their sixth defenseman.
They were crushed because they got nothing from the names on the marquee. The Rangers tried it their way and had it stuffed right back in their faces. Nothing from the Big Five.
“When we score goals [as against the Devils], we tend to play the way we played tonight and sometimes get carried away with it,” Quinn said. “Against a team like this, in games like this of this magnitude, that stuff doesn’t work shift in and shift out and expect to succeed.
“We learned the hard way.”
The Rangers can seduce you with their elite talent. They can tease you. But at some point, the rubber meets the road and they are left behind.
It’s not just one game.
The hierarchy had best be paying attention.
This story originally appeared on: NyPost - Author:Larry Brooks