by Paul West
When beloved New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist was sidelined for a month with a vascular injury, undue panic ensued. When backup Cam Talbot exceeded the expectations of even those who thought him to be a viable option, there was widespread rejoicing as the Rangers skyrocketed to the top of the NHL standings. As King Henrik approached his return, a curious situation ensued: some fans and analysts, including some who had predicted doom upon Hank’s departure, wondered aloud if there should be goalie controversy at Madison Square Garden. When
Hank re-entered the crease this past Saturday against the Boston Bruins, it didn’t go well and the doubters were briefly emboldened. Then Talbot got the start yesterday against the Washington Capitals, and the Rangers were shelled yet again–dropping regulation-time losses on consecutive days for the first time in months. There might be a silver lining in this weekend’s debacle: the Rangers look increasingly like an elite team, but they have an Achilles’ heel that can be troubling when it surfaces. It happens to be tied to what is one of their greatest strengths: their transition game.
When the Rangers are at their most explosive, they play with speed and precision in a downhill attack that can score in flurries. Playmakers like Derick Brassard, Mats Zuccarello and Derek Stepan have outstanding ice vision, combined with the quickness and puck skills to create space and make highlight-reel passes; speed merchants like Carl Hagelin and Chris Kreider barrel downhill up the wings, and have the size and strength to impose their will up front; Rick Nash has been at times magical with the puck; and youngsters like Kevin Hayes are increasingly making thw exquisite look easy. This often starts with outlet passes from the defensive and neutral zones, as the Rangers convert defense to offense as well as anyone in the league. The problem is, they’re sometimes in such a hurry to create offense that they slide into disarray in the defensive zone.
It works the same way in many sports in which play is fluid: strong transition teams can live and die by their aggressive downhill approach. At their best, the Rangers can zip up the ice in a blur, making hockey look like a video game and the puck look like it’s magnetized to their sticks. But when they’re a bit out of rhythm, or a team gets a knack for timing their outlet passes, the Rangers can give up alarming odd-man rushes and render their goaltenders almost helpless. It isn’t that they get bullied or pushed around, as they was sometimes subject to happen to them a few years ago. It’s simply that they’re sloppy and disjointed in the defensive and neutral zones, and this weekend were badly taken advantage of by two good teams. The Rangers’ past two games have basically reinforced what might be the only blueprint for keeping them from another Stanley Cup Finals appearance, and it’s an issue they need to address in time for the playoffs.
It isn’t that the Rangers should cease to be as aggressive with their transition game; it’s that the Rangers need to do this without neglecting good defensive positioning, and without getting reckless with their outlet passing. There’s a fine line between a making a beautifully timed outlet and setting up an odd-man breakaway in the wrong direction. When good teams like the Bruins and Capitals get multiple breakaway chances like they did this weekend, whomever is in net is bound for a long day. Granted, Hank showed some rust on Saturday; but the Rangers didn’t protect him very well, and when they did an equally poor job of protecting Cam on Sunday, the results were similar. The Rangers have gotten away with this kind of thing before this season, including during their meteoric rise of the past month; but the bruins and Capitals are both high-caliber playoff teams, and it was only a matter of time until their defensive lapses caught up with them. Granted, the Rangers have played plenty of quality defensive games this season, in which they protected their goalie and helped clear rebounds even while playing their aggressive downhill style. If this wasn’t the case, they wouldn’t have been first in the NHL to clinch a playoff berth. But the Rangers will need to return to consistently playing with balance if they expect to bring home the long-coveted Cup.