Rangers' horrific stretch continues with trade deadline nearing

As the calendar hit Feb. 8, the Blueshirt fans were to face a harsh reality that they have not witnessed in over 15 years. The New York Rangers were on the verge of selling every top player they had in preparation for a new era in the team’s storied nine-decade history.

Just the day before, the Rangers were beat down by their longtime rival, the Boston Bruins, by a score of 6-1, their fourth consecutive regulation loss. It did not help that the game was in Madison Square Garden, as frustrated Rangers fans watched their team put up one of the most atrocious and lackluster performances of the season.

The very next day, President Glen Sather and General Manager Jeff Gorton addressed the fans with a letter that indicated what the team’s direction will be moving forward. Every Rangers fan’s fears came true, as the letter explicitly stated that the team was looking toward the future. At that point, it was pretty obvious that players like Rick Nash, Ryan McDonagh, Mats Zuccarello and Michael Grabner were not going to be wearing Rangers uniforms for much longer.

The Rangers players took this message as motivation, at least for two games. They responded by winning back-to-back games against two of the Western Conference’s best teams, the Calgary Flames and the Winnipeg Jets. Suddenly, the Rangers were only a game or two away from playoff contention.

However, just two days after the Rangers defeated the Jets on Sunday, Feb. 11, reality came back to haunt them. They had a very busy schedule the following week, as they faced the Minnesota Wild, the New York Islanders, the Ottawa Senators and the Philadelphia Flyers, most of which are in postseason contention.

Looking to carry their so-called "momentum" into these crucial games, the Rangers laid a massive egg that week, as they lost all four games in regulation, their second four-game regulation losing streak in a span of just 18 days. They have sunk deeper than the Titanic, if that is even possible. Breaking down each of these matches will give a glimpse as to why the Rangers have sunk so low.

The Rangers began the week with a tough road test against the Wild, one of the league’s best home teams. To say the Rangers came out a step slow would be a huge understatement. They did not look even the slightest bit prepared when they came out onto the ice.

It took the Wild just six minutes and 17 seconds to expose the Rangers’ horrific defense and poor puck management to jump out to a commanding 3-0 lead. Eric Staal, Zach Parise and Marcus Foligno each tallied a goal for Minnesota. That is when Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault took a timeout and addressed his team.

Normally a mild-mannered and calm-headed coach, Vigneault was visibly frustrated with his team’s constant careless mistakes leading to continued poor starts to games and he expressed this frustration in the timeout. That seemed to give the Rangers a little bit of a jolt to their game, as they quickly responded with a power-play goal at 8:50, courtesy of recent call-up John Gilmour. It was the young defenseman’s first NHL goal, which cut the deficit to 3-1.

The Rangers played much better in the second period, outshooting the Wild 19-8 and adding another goal thanks to Kevin Hayes. Down 3-2, the Rangers could not capitalize on any more opportunities, mainly due to the superb play of Wild goaltender Devan Dubnyk in the second period and the Wild’s stingy defense in the third period. Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist finished strong after giving up those three early goals, but it was not enough as his team fell to the Wild 3-2.

Two nights later on Feb. 15, the Rangers faced their crosstown rivals, the Islanders, at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. The Rangers had not beaten the Islanders since last season’s opening game, a 5-3 victory at the Garden in October of 2016. That losing streak continued, as the Islanders, despite having the league’s worst defense, shut out the Rangers 3-0. Lundqvist made 32 saves, putting up a solid performance, but that did not compare to what Islanders goaltender Jaroslav Halák did. Halák made an astounding 50 saves that night.

It was his second consecutive start facing 50 or more shots, as he faced 51 shots in his previous start, a 4-1 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday, Feb. 13. Josh Bailey, Jordan Eberle and Thomas Hickey all scored for the Islanders and rookie sensation Mathew Barzal registered three assists. The Rangers definitely exposed the Islanders defense with the 50 shots on goal. What they did not do is put the puck in the net, legally that is.

The Rangers had a goal called back midway through the third period after the officials reviewed whether David Desharnais distinctly kicked the puck in with his skate. Unfortunately, that was the case, and the Rangers left Brooklyn with a 3-0 shutout loss.

They are winless in five trips to the Barclays Center, with a record of 0-4-1. The two teams will meet again at the Barclays Center on April 5, the Rangers second-to-last game of the season.

The Rangers concluded their short road trip with a match against the Senators on Saturday Feb. 17. The Senators were one of the league’s biggest disappointments, as they went from being one shot away from the Stanley Cup Finals last season, after defeating the Rangers in the semifinals, to being a complete train wreck on the ice this season.

Rangers forward Pavel Buchnevich returned to the lineup after missing nine games with a concussion. Having a top-six forward back in the lineup and facing a struggling team should have all but guaranteed a Rangers victory. This is the Rangers and irony quickly kicked in.

Once again, the Rangers came out unprepared and made countless defensive errors, turnovers and mental mistakes. They made the Senators team look like the team from last season, as the Rangers suffered a terrible 6-3 defeat to one of the league’s worst teams.

Five Senators recorded at least two points, with former Ranger Derick Brassard leading the way with a goal and two assists. Grabner scored twice for the Rangers and Mika Zibanejad added a power-play goal. Lundqvist was pulled after allowing five goals on 22 shots, replaced by newcomer Brandon Halverson in the third period. This was the third time in eight games that Lundqvist was yanked, raising serious questions about his play and his ability to be a No. 1 goaltender.

Less than 24 hours later, the Rangers were back home for a noon game against their half-century rival, the Philadelphia Flyers.

The game started off with both teams scoring three times in the first period, with the Rangers having a 14-11 edge in shots on goal. Hayes, Nash and Zuccarello scored for the Rangers in that period. Flyers goaltender Michal Neuvirth left the game after the first period with an apparent injury and was replaced by Alex Lyon. Lyon played masterfully the rest of the way, stopping 25 of 26 shots in relief. The Flyers grabbed a 4-3 lead early in the second period thanks to Nolan Patrick, this past draft’s second overall pick behind Nico Hischier of the New Jersey Devils.

The Rangers responded with a goal from Peter Holland, his first in a Rangers uniform, to tie the game at 4. But with less than five minutes to go in the frame, the Flyers regained the lead, courtesy of Travis Konecny. The Flyers put the game away in the third period with goals from Claude Giroux and Jori Lehterä en route to a 7-4 thumping of the Rangers. Lundqvist allowed all seven goals, while Lyon earned the victory in relief.

Just 11 days after the Rangers came out of the All-Star break with a four-game regulation losing streak, they did the very same thing, dropping their record to 27-28-5. They now have a losing record this season for the first time since Nov. 4.

This is also the first time since the 2009-2010 season that the Rangers have a losing record through 60 games. They narrowly missed the playoffs that season, after losing a shootout to the Flyers in the final game. Everything that could possibly go wrong has gone wrong for the Rangers, as the defense continued to fall apart, the offense became stagnant and the goaltending became shockingly unreliable.

As hard as it is to say, age and attrition has kicked in for Lundqvist, whose recent performances make him look like a shell of his former self. He started all four games this past week and gave up 18 goals in those games. Since Jan. 21, he has posted an abysmal 4.32 goal-against average and .875 save percentage, dropping his season stats to a 2.89 goals against average and a .914 save percentage.

The Rangers have lost eight of 10 since the end of the all-star break and 15 of 22 games since the start of 2018. They have officially hit rock bottom and it appears that they have no other option than to sell every player worth something to acquire more young players for the future.

It does not appear that Vigneault will be back behind the Rangers bench next season, as he clearly deserves some blame for the team’s struggles. His reluctance to utilize young players and continuing to use his washed-up veterans has clearly slowed this team down and has given the Rangers no direct path for the next few seasons.

They have fallen out of playoff contention, and it appears that their consecutive postseason streak will end at seven, especially if they are the major sellers that fans expect them to be at the trade deadline. Every time they try to rebound, they find new ways to fall even farther.

Now, it is too late and all the injuries, underachievers and inept performances have added up to a season marred by pathetic effort and lack of leadership, character and identity. They have dug themselves into a hole the size of a canyon and it appears that they will not be getting out anytime soon. Fans can now look toward the future as this season is all but finished.

SportsFelix MalamudComment