Rangers' second half collapse may lead to selling at deadline

Toward the end of October, the New York Rangers found themselves in last place in the Metropolitan Division, something no one would have imagined. Rumors of firing head coach Alain Vigneault and trading top players swirled around the team and the New York media. Those very same rumors are spreading again three months later, as the Rangers have appeared to hit rock bottom at the most important point of the season.The Rangers have been marred with injuries, a lack of depth and inconsistent play from their most reliable players. Their lone All-Star was goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who has played the role of Atlas, carrying the entire team on his shoulders. It appeared that by the Feb. 26 trade deadline, the Rangers would try to make a move that could help them make a strong push toward the postseason. Instead, they will most likely use that deadline to start over and blow everything up, ridding themselves of their top forwards and defensemen, who have expiring contracts either at the end of this season or the next one. Such players include top goal scorer Michael Grabner, captain Ryan McDonagh and alternate captains Mats Zuccarello and Rick Nash. This has not happened since the late 1990s and early 2000s, during the final years of well-known franchise cornerstones, such as Mark Messier and Mike Richter. This entire scenario may be an exaggeration because the Rangers are still just two points out of a wild-card playoff spot. However, the team has fallen down so dramatically as of late, it practically has just mathematical chances to make the playoffs. Such a scare or overreaction at this point could become a reality toward the end of the season. The Rangers have lost five of their last six games, eight of their last 11, and 12 of their last 18. They have shown way too many signs of inconsistency in all aspects of the game, and that does not even take into account the long-term injuries that are affecting this team. The Rangers entered the second half of the season with just 32 games remaining, a good amount of which are against legitimate playoff and championship caliber teams. The team had two such games already against the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Nashville Predators. In those two games, everything that could have went wrong for the Rangers did and then some. The Rangers played the Maple Leafs at home on Thursday, Feb. 1. From the opening puck drop, the players did not look prepared, even with the extra days off all teams received after the All-Star Game. The Maple Leafs grabbed an early 2-0 lead in the first period thanks to goals by Justin Holl and James van Riemsdyk. They would add two more goals just three minutes into the second period, courtesy of Patrick Marleau and Zach Hyman. At that point, Lundqvist was pulled after allowing four goals on 13 shots. Backup goaltender Ondřej Pavelec stopped all 19 shots he faced in the remainder of the game, but the Maple Leafs prevailed by a score of 4-0. The one player the Rangers could not afford to have struggle is Lundqvist, and he did exactly that during the match. Going back to his previous start against the Anaheim Ducks on Tuesday, Jan. 23, the goaltender was pulled for the second consecutive game. The offense throughout the Thursday game was virtually nonexistent, and the big fat zero that was the Rangers’ goal total is all the proof necessary. They were outshot 32-25 and were virtually outplayed in every aspect of the game. Countless turnovers and poor puck management haunted the Rangers yet again. This story has been told dozens upon dozens of times with this team, and it is beyond the fans’ threshold at this point. Yet all the poor play was not the worst part of the match. The Rangers lost yet another key piece of the team in Pavel Buchnevich to a concussion. Like Chris Kreider and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, Buchnevich was ruled to be out indefinitely. Now the Rangers are without two top-six forwards and a top defenseman for the long term, and that does not bode well for this upcoming crucial stretch of the team’s schedule. Two nights later, on Feb. 3, the Rangers were in Nashville to take on the defending Western Conference champion, the Predators. This team, however, is no longer the Cinderella story that it was last season. The Predators are an elite team with a stable core and new additions that have fit in flawlessly with coach Peter Laviolette’s high-tempo, fast-paced system. The first period was all about survival for the Rangers, as they managed to keep the game scoreless. They were outshot 12-5, hardly generated any quality scoring opportunities and had to rely on Lundqvist yet again. He did his job for the time being, making big save after big save. Just 19 seconds into the second period, the Predators drew first blood, thanks to a scorching slap shot from All-Star defenseman P.K. Subban. A few minutes later, the Rangers looked like they had tied the game at 1 point thanks to Peter Holland’s first goal as a Ranger, but it was called back because of a successful offside challenge by the Nashville coaching staff. Later in the period, controversy ensued after Nashville defenseman Alexei Emelin hit Marc Staal in a way that appeared targeted towards Staal’s head. Not too long after that, Nashville forward Filip Forsberg elbowed Rangers’ Jimmy Vesey in the mouth. Both Staal and Vesey did not return to the game due to the concussion protocol. To add insult to injury, neither Emelin nor Forsberg were penalized for their hits, which drew the ire of the Rangers players and coaching staff. Both Emelin and Forsberg will have hearings from the league’s player-safety department in the coming days. These types of hits are what the NHL has tried to outlaw from the game for years. To not even call a penalty on those hits is an egregious and pathetic mistake on the parts of the officials. However, it was not as egregious as the Rangers’ performance in the game. Nashville doubled their lead late in the second period with a goal by Kevin Fiala after a Rangers turnover. The Rangers had an abysmal eight shots on goal after two periods. But early in the third period, the Rangers appeared to have some life, when just 21 seconds in on the power play, J.T. Miller scored to slice the deficit in half to 2-1. Just two minutes later, the Predators answered, thanks to Colton Sissons taking advantage of yet another Rangers turnover in their own zone. The Rangers cut the lead to 3-2 with five-and-a half-minutes remaining, thanks to a power-play goal by Mika Zibanejad. But just 16 seconds later, the Predators rebutted again with a goal by Viktor Arvidsson. Fiala added another goal for Nashville on a power-play empty-netter to put the game away with a score of 5-2. With injuries to Kreider, Shattenkirk and Buchnevich, the Rangers could not afford to lose anyone else. However, the team lost Staal and Vesey, at least for the remainder of that game. The Rangers’ status for the upcoming games is unknown. But looking beyond the team’s plethora of injuries, there is clearly a lack of depth. Perhaps trading away top center Derek Stepan and reliable backup goaltender Antti Raanta was not exactly the smartest move. Without Stepan, the center position has been a major flaw for the Rangers the entire season. In addition, Pavelec has been nowhere near the stellar backup netminder that Raanta was. On the other end of the spectrum, Stepan and Raanta have not really helped the Arizona Coyotes, as they have the worst record in the NHL. So maybe the Rangers kept their glass half-full. In reality, they have bigger problems. General manager Jeff Gorton is now faced with a crisis. The trade deadline is approaching fast, and he has to make a decision on whether he stands pat and hopes his current core of players can make a one last playoff push, or he sells away the team’s cornerstones from the past five to seven seasons for young, talented prospects in hopes for a more prosperous future. If the Rangers do not turn this pathetic play around, Gorton will almost certainly hit that giant red reset button sitting on his desk and begin his fire-sale. The team’s schedule does not get any easier, as their next five opponents — the Dallas Stars, Boston Bruins, Calgary Flames, Winnipeg Jets and Minnesota Wild — are all playoff and championship contenders. struggle at even-strength, they will go nowhere. The Rangers currently sit in last place in the Metropolitan Division with a 25-22-5 record, with only 55 points.

SportsFelix MalamudComment