NEW YORK – The only people in the New York City metropolitan area that are still not awaiting the winter’s first snowfall are the New York Rangers.
Their defensive lapses have turned their confidence into mush, and with each mounting loss, that confidence continues careening down a mountain in an avalanche. Who knows when the avalanche will stop, and who knows what kind of debris will be picked up in the meantime?
Sunday night at Madison Square Garden, just as it appeared the avalanche was beginning to slow, it rapidly picked up speed once again. The Rangers (19-12-4) took a 3-1 lead into the first intermission before allowing four goals during a nightmare second period, leading to a humiliating 7-3 defeat against the first-place Washington Capitals (24-6-2).
“It is frustrating right now but at the same time, nothing is going to get better if you keep thinking negatively,” said forward Mats Zuccarello. “You have to stay positive and believe in each other and back each other up. The guys in the room here, we have to be better. Everyone knows that.”
“It’s something we’ve been able to do in the past, and we’ll get back to it, I know,” said captain Ryan McDonagh when asked about the team’s lagging confidence. “We’ve got a lot of confidence in this team. It’s been a struggle, but we’ve got a lot of confidence in here about our potential and ways to get there.”
The Rangers were given a standing ovation from the Garden fans after a first period during which they outshot the Capitals 15-7, pushing three goals past one of the best goaltenders in the league, Braden Holtby (33 saves).
But then came the woeful second period, filled with too many penalties, missed defensive assignments, two goals allowed in 96 seconds, and four goals allowed in a span of less than 14 minutes. Henrik Lundqvist was pulled after allowing five goals on 24 shots, and the team was booed off the ice.
“I’m not sure that it’s as much mental as it is execution,” said coach Alain Vigneault. “It’s probably a combination of both. There’s no doubt in my mind that the answer is in that dressing room.”
The Rangers have allowed two goals within two minutes of a period five times in the last six games, and eight times this season. Like an avalanche roaring down a mountain the more it happens, the harder it is to stop.
“Right now when bad things happen, we get out of structure a little bit and give up chances,” Lundqvist said. “I have to look at my own game. I can’t just look at the team game. I have to be better. I know that. We all know that.”
Goaltender Magnus Hellberg, on the roster due to a head injury suffered by Antti Raanta, made his Rangers’ debut in the third, allowing goals on the first two shots he faced.
This freefall has reached incredible, hard-to-believe proportions. After starting the season on a 16-3-2 run, they’ve lost 11 of their last 14 games (3-9-2), and have allowed at least five goals in three consecutive games, including in five of their last six.
“Hockey games can turn fast; they shift,” Lundqvist said. “Right now it’s a test for us mentally to turn this around. We’re trying to do the right thing out there, working hard, trying to talk about things. It’s definitely challenging right now to get everything going in the right direction.”
They’ve allowed 31 goals in their last six games, a remarkable total for the team that had the lowest goals-against average in the league over the season’s first two months.
“From my standpoint, I know that this group knows how to defend and can defend,” Vigneault said. “They’ve obviously proved it in the past. We’re obviously not doing it at this point in time. We have to regroup, stick with one another, and get back at it on Tuesday.”
The avalanche continues to get larger, more powerful. Their confidence seems miles away. Who knows when – or if – they’ll get it back in time to save this Stanley Cup-or-bust season that is slowly getting eaten alive.