by Paul West
If you were watching the first two periods of tonight’s Eastern Conference quarterfinal at Madison Square Garden, you’d felt as if the The New York Rangers were seizing control of the series, one shift at a time. They were flying up and down the ice, asserting themselves physically in every zone. Rick Nash spent two periods barreling down the left side, breaking the ice with a shorthanded goal; Chris Kreider followed with what looked like a power play goal, until it was called back for having begun on an offsides play. The Rangers created turnover after turnover, rushing up and down the ice as the Garden faithful cheered and cheered.
And yet, the game was tied 1-1 after two periods. Despite having dominated for the vast majority of 40 minutes of game time, the Rangers didn’t have so much as a scoreboard lead to show for it. And the reason wasn’t the play of Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray; if this had been the case, a tied game could be easier to stomach. Unfortunately, the Rangers had so little to show for forty minutes of on-ice domination, because a familiar and frustrating problem had reared its ugly head: a baffling, headscratching, exasperating refusal to shoot the puck.
As of the end of the second intermission, the Rangers had managed only 13 shots on goal. As of midway through the third, they had managed only fifteen. Against a rookie goaltender whom most fans couldn’t have named more than a week ago, this is unacceptable. During their periods of dominance, while Madison Square Garden was poised to explode in glee, the Rangers wasted forechecks and power play time by constantly searching for the elite-level, thing-of-beauty pass. Instead of peppering a goalie that at times seemed to show nervousness, the Rangers seemed to think they were playing a video game. And this has been their problem all season–really, it’s been their problem in previous seasons, but it’s been most consistently present in this year’s campaign: when the Rangers score, it’s exquisite, but their constant search for the video-game assist has made them turnover-prone and prone to scoring droughts. Moreover, when they do attempt to shoot the puck, it’s often such a telegraphed attempt that it’s easily blocked and/or stopped by a goalie who’s read the play as well as the rest of the arena. There’s a fine line between ‘making the extra pass’ as a key to success, and overpassing in lieu of creating opportunities.
The goal that appeared to be the Rangers’ second of the night was instructive, and was briefly cause for hope. It happened when Kreider, as he’s done frequently in recent months while proving himself one of the team’s biggest keys to victory, aggressively drove to the net (which, it should be noted, Nash did on his goal) and flicked a rebound past Murray. Had Kreider attempted to corral the puck and take a more artful shot, it might have been stopped by a recovering Murray or a closing defender; instead, he took advantage of the fact that Murray had just made an off-balance save, and simply shoveled the puck into the net. Had the Rangers followed this example, and kept Murray off balance with unexpected shots and sustained flurries, they would likely be celebrating a victory. Instead, they finished a pivotal playoff game, on their own ice, having only put 17 shots on goal.
There were calls that should have gone the Rangers’ way, and didn’t; unfortunately, the way the Rangers’ power play looked, there’s little reason to believe they’d have taken advantage, anyway. The Rangers have mainly themselves to blame for tonight’s loss at Madison Square Garden. And if they’re going to win this series, they need to take cues from Kreider and Nash and convert their periods of frenetic domination into scoring chances.