NEW YORK – It’s not so much the inconsistency from game-to-game that’s been baffling the Rangers, it’s the lack of consistency from shift-to-shift.
After playing a solid opening 20 minutes during which they took the game’s first four shots and scored the game’s first goal, they regressed into turnovers, bad coverage, and a lazy forecheck during the final 40 minutes.
All that allowed Winnipeg to score three unanswered third-period goals to upend the Rangers (14-14-0) 5-2 at Madison Square Garden on Monday night.
“After what I thought was a pretty solid first period, in the second period we just stopped playing in the first ten minutes,” said Rangers coach Alain Vigneault. “Gave them opportunities, gave them odd-man rushes, turned the puck over, gave them momentum. From there, they got some life. We tied it up, but in the third we made the same mistakes in the beginning that we did at the beginning of the second. It cost us.”
It was a start that had the capacity crowd of 18,006 buzzing – Mats Zuccarello deflected Ryan McDonagh’s point shot past Ondrej Pavelec (35 saves) just 2:49 into the game. It was the 15th time this year the Rangers had opened the game’s scoring – they’re now 13-2-0 when doing so this season.
“It’s just a matter of being mentally tough,” McDonagh said. “We’ve been playing a lot of games here, but so has the rest of the league. We have to stay mentally focused here no matter what situation and trust our structure.”
The Rangers dominated puck possession in the opening 20. But when the teams came out of the locker room to start the second, the roles were reversed. It was Winnipeg (13-12-4) that was dictating play, taking seven of the first eight shots in the period, and scoring two of the period’s three goals.
And things didn’t get much better in the third. Olli Jokinen jumped on a loose puck in the slot and wired it past Cam Talbot (25 saves) to give the Jets the lead with 7:18 left. Just over five minutes later, Jokinen had the Jets’ insurance, and the Rangers were back to the .500 mark for the eighth time this season.
“It needs to be fixed,” said Rangers captain Ryan Callahan. “We can’t keep going on like this if we want to be where we want to be at the end of the year. Especially at home, we have to make this a tough place to play, and we have to get wins here. We know we need to be better.”
Blake Wheeler completed the scoring with an empty net goal in the game’s final minute as the Rangers dropped to 5-6-0 at the Garden.
After starting the season 3-7-0 in their first ten games, the Rangers rattled off six wins in seven games. Since then, they’re a pedestrian 5-6-0 in their last 11.
“Good teams don’t hover around .500 all year,” said Rick Nash, who had seven shots. “They put winning streaks together, and we can’t find that streak right now. We have to do a better job figuring it out.”
“Five hundred hockey’s not going to cut it. Bottom line,” Talbot said. “That’s not going to get us in the playoffs come April. We have to do a better job closing out these games, or we’re going to be on the outside looking in.”
There is a break on the horizon. After playing nine games in 17 days, they play just ten games before the Christmas break, with only one of them away from Madison Square Garden. If they’re going to make a move, now’s the time.
“We’re definitely not getting the traction that I know we want,” Vigneault said. “The only way we’re going to get traction and get better is by playing more consistent hockey. Is this team a .500 hockey club? We’re certainly playing like one right now. If we want to get off the .500 mark, we’re going to have to play better.”
“We got all the pieces to the puzzle in here to do it,” Nash said. “Just a matter of going out and doing it. We’ve got this home stretch, we obviously need a better home record than we’ve put forward this year. It’s close, but it’s not good enough right now.”
INSIDE THE LOCKER ROOM: