Rangers' system showing cracks

ByJohnette Howard ESPN logo
Tuesday, May 19, 2015

NEW YORK -- So much of this New York Rangers' season has been about the Triumph of the System. But this? This was not how the Rangers play. What was happening down on the Madison Square Garden ice Monday night was not what they wanted or recognized at all.

In the sloppy, penalty-marred, mistake-filled effort, all the reasons why the Rangers were perfectly content playing their NHL-record streak of 15 consecutive low-scoring games this postseason were laid out in vivid, stinging detail.

The Tampa Bay Lightning's howitzer offense had just won the battle of styles against the defense-first Rangers. They routed them off the ice 6-2 to tie their Eastern Conference finals series at one game apiece. And now Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh sat at his locker, sweat-soaked and disgusted.

This was easily the Rangers' worst game of the playoffs and McDonagh said as much, often spitting out his words like hot ingots.

"We have to realize stupid, selfish penalties are going to cost us against this team. They have too much skill. We're shooting ourselves in the foot. ... We're killing ourselves," McDonagh said. "I don't even know what to call this game. I want to get rid of it, get the thought out of my head.

"I've never really seen this group play this way before.

"Those guys are going to make us pay," McDonagh said two or three times.

The longer McDonagh spoke and the more he kept repeating how dangerous the Lightning's skill players are, the more the memory of the other games the Rangers and Lightning played this season seemed to leak into his thoughts.

Counting the regular season, Tampa Bay has now scored five or more goals against Rangers all-world goaltender Henrik Lundqvist in three of the five games they've played. And that just doesn't happen. Not to Lundqvist.

But this series always shaped up to be a fascinating contrast of the Lightning's league-leading offense against a Rangers team that has the best and deepest defensive corps in the league in front of their great goaltender. And Monday, anyway, most of what went wrong wasn't Lundqvist's fault.

The Rangers just kept gift-wrapping scoring chances. Or Tampa kept gouging them out.

Veteran forward Martin St. Louis, who crowbarred his way out of Tampa Bay last season with a request for a trade to the Rangers, has a team-leading six assists right now after picking up two more Monday. But forget that. He continues to kill the Rangers in ways big and small. Monday he continued his pattern of whiffing again on good setup passes or chances in front of the net.

But his most grievous mistake happened when he didn't anticipate, then overskated, a pass back to him in the Lightning's zone with the Rangers on a five-on-three power play.

Tyler Johnson pounced on the puck, skated in on a breakaway and beat Lundqvist on the rebound of his initial shot -- the first goal of his eventual hat trick.

"Yeah, that's something you don't see very often," McDonagh gruffed. "A three-on-five turn into a two-on-zero the other way. It's a play that simply can't happen. ... You just can't have it. ... It's a killer."

St. Louis contended "there was still a lot of hockey to play after that." And the Rangers did claw back to within 3-2 when Derek Stepan scored a cagey goal from behind the net by bouncing a puck off defenseman Braydon Coburn's back as Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop was down on the ice and out of the crease.

Still, the Rangers never really had a semblance of control over this game. They muffed plays and tried to play catch-up all night. They were undisciplined.

They committed seven penalties in all, five of them came when this game was still a game, and Tampa's lethal power play made them pay.

No wonder McDonagh found it so disorienting to watch. The Rangers looked nothing like themselves. At times they lost their poise or assignments. The Lightning can match the Rangers' excellent team speed. But they had talked a lot after losing Game 1 by a single goal about failing to compete or hit enough. Then they came out in Game 2 and improved on both.

"We played not to get touched," Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said, referring to Saturday's 2-1 loss.

"Tonight, we were getting dirty. And it changed the complexion for us."

Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said, "We need our top guys to do the same thing."

The Rangers have been winning with a lot of their top scorers still MIAs. But now they have legitimate reason to wonder if their Game 1 victory against Tampa was the aberration, not this Game 2 loss. They have reason to wonder whether they were wrong before this series to dismiss their 0-3 regular-season record against the Lightning just because all three games were played by Dec. 1.

So much of this Rangers' season has been about the triumph of the system.

It has been about playing the "right" way.

But in this matchup, anyway, sizzle keeps trumping steady.

The Rangers will never admit to any creeping doubt. Even if they don't, at minimum the Lightning gave themselves bigger reasons to believe. The Rangers finished with the most points in the NHL this year, and are the club that roared all the way to the Stanley Cup finals a year ago, and yet none of that seems to hold much sway when the Rangers play the Lightning.

McDonagh knows that's a dangerous bit of confidence to give a dangerous team, particularly as the series now moves to Florida for two games.

"We've got to sharpen up on our mentality here and understand the situation we're in and get a hold of it quick," McDonagh said. "We've got to crawl back and win some games in their building.

"We've got to just get back to playing the way we know we can."

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