While reporters bustled about the New York Rangers’ locker room getting quotes for their stories with leaders of the team, Henrik Lundquist sat in front of his locker patiently waiting for his turn to be swarmed. His slouched posture, blank stare and defeated demeanor spoke louder than any words that could come out of his mouth. His woes and his team’s woes continue to pile on as the New York Rangers dropped their second straight with a 4-1 loss to the Nashville Predators last night at Madison Square Garden.
It is not just the Blueshirts’ inability to play on home ice, the Rangers are now 5-8-1 at the beautifully renovated Madison Square Garden and 0-2-1 on their nine-game home stand, or their struggle to find an offensive groove, the Rangers have only scored two goals in the past two games, but, now, the team must play without two of its leaders. The team confirmed Marc Staal sustained a concussion in Saturday night’s game against the New Jersey Devils and while doctors diagnosed the severity of the of concussion as less serious than his previous one, it is hard to tell when he will be able to return to the lineup. Last night, the Rangers lost another key component to their team as Captain Ryan Callahan suffered a second-degree MCL sprain and will be out four to six weeks. This is the third time this year the Rangers will be playing without their captain who is known for his gritty, hard-hitting style of play that usually sets the tone of the game. With a top defenseman out and the loss of Callahan, the Rangers’ will have to step up their game even more in order to regain their footing and position in the standings.
Rangers’ head coach Alain Vigneault has made his thoughts of his team’s performance well known to the media in the past few weeks. He knows he has all the pieces for a winning team, but cannot fathom why those pieces of the puzzle won’t come together. Vigneault decided to try a strategy that most coaches use when their team isn’t generating offense, and that is to switch up the lines. Before the game he stated, “I’m switching things up because we are .500.” At the beginning of the game Rick Nash was paired with Derick Brassard and Carl Hagelin, Derek Stepan, Mats Zuccarello and Chris Kreider were reunited, Callahan, Brad Richards and Brian Boyle skated together, and the fourth line consisted of the recently called up Arron Asham, Dominic Moore, and Derek Dorsett who came back after missing the last few games with a sore wrist.
The lines continued to shift as the Rangers’ had a tough time putting the puck behind Carter Hutton, who had not started a game for the Predators since Nov. 10. The team’s lack of offense has been the Rangers’ Achilles Heel all season and it proved true again last night as Nash, who recorded his 600 career point, was the only one able to get the puck between the pipes.
While the Rangers started the game with a jump, the Predators began to gain momentum in the latter part of the first period. Nick Spaling put the Preds on the board with six minutes to go in the first. The play started to unravel for the Rangers when Ryan McDonagh went hard into the boards after gathering David Legwand’s rebound that bounced in front of the net. He slid the puck behind the goal line and was taken down by the eventual goal scorer Spaling. With McDonagh down Rangers’ defenseman Justin Falk had to cover two men while others came back to help. Falk slid toward Patric Hornqvist who received the puck from a diving Legwand and with Falk down, Hornqvist passed to Spaling who was open in the slot. A one-two-three play and the Preds found themselves with the lead.
The Rangers have not fared well when their opponents score first and last night was more of the same. After Spaling’s goal, the intense atmosphere in the arena started to dissipate, and the Rangers weaknesses came to light. The Predators struck again with nearly two minutes left in the first. Matt Hendricks and Rich Clune took advantage of Michael Del Zotto playing deep in the offensive zone and started a two-on-two play the other way with Anton Stralman and Dominic Moore on defense for the Rangers. Hendricks realized Clune was a step ahead of Moore and sent a lead pass to him as he was streaking toward the net. Clune used his backhand to tuck the puck behind a stretched out Lundqvist. The first period ended with the Rangers outshooting the Predators 10 to six, but they found themselves in two-goal hole.
“I thought we started out all right, but it makes it real challenging when you are down two nothing early. With the difficulty of our offense right now as far as scoring goals, it makes it very challenging and that’s what happened tonight.” said Vigneault postgame.
In the second period, the Rangers cut the lead in half with a heads up play by Richards. Richards received a pass from Brassard and saw Nash cutting toward the net. Nash made it look like he was going to back hand a shot on the short side, which made Hutton lean toward the side. With the goalie off balance, Nash went to his forehand and wristed a shot into the net. The Rangers continued to try and find their offensive game, but did not sustain a solid forecheck. They had opportunities, but couldn’t convert.
“We were able to get one there on a good passing play, and I think from there we were looking for pretty plays a little too much. We have to get back to our forechecking mentality,” McDonagh explained.
Hope for a Ranger comeback ended early in the third when Hendricks notched his second goal of the season and put his team up by two. As Lundqvist put it, “That third goal killed us.” Paul Gaustad added an empty netter and secured the Preds victory.
“The only thing I know right now is you can only go up,” said Lundqvist. “Right now it’s extremely tough mentally and you try to be positive, you have to. There are so many games left; it’s just a really tough stretch. It’s hard for us to get points and you just have to work through it, stick together and be positive. It is definitely a test for all of us.”
Richards reiterated Lundqvist’s thoughts. “It’s tough right now. It’s not a fun part of the game but it’s a great challenge to come together here and get back to work tomorrow. No one is going to feel sorry for us; no one coming into the building is going to give us a win. We have a lot of work to do.”
The Rangers go back to work Thursday night when emotions will run high as former Rangers Marian Gaborik, Artem Anisimov and Brandon Dubinsky will return to MSG as the Blue Jackets come to town.