The success of the season is not dependent upon the Rangers making the playoffs. But this final 14-game sprint to the finish line that commences in Dallas on Tuesday with the Blueshirts three points out of the second wild-card spot will reveal strengths and weaknesses that will factor into the offseason plan.
Because for all the good things the Blueshirts did in going on a 9-1 surge to put themselves right there in the race, they fell back in essentially all areas while dropping four of their past five.
Or, as Mika Zibanejad so aptly put it, “It’s been a bit of a roller coaster for us the last week-and-a-half or so.”
Stop the ride.
The Rangers —who would have slipped behind Florida into 11th place with a Puddy Tat point on Monday in St. Louis — have to get off.
David Quinn identified deficiencies in the team’s defensive awareness as the root of its issues during this slide and thus designed a series of applicable drills for a hard-working practice at home before departing for this three-game trip that also features a game in Colorado on Wednesday and in Arizona on Saturday. Every one of them a challenge but then, aren’t they all at this time of year?
“We showed our team a stat before our video session that from Jan. 7 through that game in Montreal [on Feb. 27], we were second in the league in goals per-game and fifth in the league in goals-against,” said Quinn of the stretch in which the Blueshirts went 16-6. “That wasn’t a small sample size. It was almost two months.
“We had the second-best record in the league, the best power play, but it was all stemming from playing good defense. And in the last five games, we’ve given up 24 goals. So this is much more about resetting our mindset, getting everybody committed to playing defense and getting everybody to understand what we’re going to have to do and what our recipe is for success. That’s what it comes down to.
“We just have to be a little more thorough. We’ve got to get back to being thorough all the time. It can’t be 53 minutes, it can’t be 58 minutes,” the coach said. “It’s got to be shift in and shift out.”
The dip also coincides with Chris Kreider’s absence from the lineup with the broken foot he sustained midway through the first period in Philadelphia on Feb. 28. The Blueshirts, a team that rides its marquee forwards, have not been able to come up with a reasonable facsimile on the first line. Beyond that, there has been little offensive contributions from the club’s support players.
During the 9-1 run, the Blueshirts’ top six of Kreider, Zibanejad, Pavel Buchnevich, Artemi Panarin, Ryan Strome and Jesper Fast accounted for 29 of the 35 goals scored by Rangers forwards, four recorded by Kreider. Over the past five games, the top six (now including Phil Di Giuseppe) has scored 12 of the forwards’ 15, with 10 recorded by Zibanejad. Not much from the bottom six.
But there has been a dip in the goaltending as well. The team might be able to outscore mistakes without the puck, but it won’t be able to survive ordinary goaltending. The Rangers have allowed 40 or more shots 20 times. They are 14-5-1 in those contests, 6-0 in games in which their goaltender faces at least 46 shots. The Rangers allowed 40 or more shots five times during that 9-1 stretch. They won all five. The club’s save percentage during the spree checked in at .944. It dropped by 100 percentage points to .844 over the past five games. That’s not even close to ordinary.
The Rangers have been surrendering a few more quality shots, but have also been getting considerably fewer quality saves. It’s a deadly combination.
“I think it’s a little bit of both,” said Quinn, who will go back to Igor Shesterkin in Dallas. “I think if you talk to our goaltenders, they would be probably want to be a little bit better, but we also have to do our part in defending better. There’s a lot that goes into it.
“And when I say, ‘Everybody,’ we talk about everyone’s got to be better, from the goalies to the defensemen to the forwards, it’s a team-wide commitment. Defense isn’t just what goes on in the defensive zone. Defense is what happens when you don’t have the puck, regardless of what zone you’re in.”
There will be a lot that goes into these final 14 games of this unexpected playoff race. But the Rangers won’t get all that much out of it without some scoring from their depth forwards, better defensive work and attention to detail, and a return to superiority in goal.