By Larry Brooks
April 22, 2016
Pittsburgh Penguins right wing Patric Hornqvist (72) knocks the puck past New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist (30) for a goal during the first period of Game 4 of an NHL hockey first-round Stanley Cup playoff series, Thursday, April 21, 2016, in New York. The Penguins won 5-0. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
PITTSBURGH — Look, the way the Rangers have played, they would be losing to Florida, too, so let’s not overthink the final week of the season when management and the coaching staff refused to consider a tank job in order to get the Panthers rather than the Penguins in Round One.
Cats, birds of a different feather; the Rangers are the wounded animals here as they attempt to fight off extinction in Saturday afternoon’s Game 5 that nobody but nobody outside of their clan gives them much of a chance to win.
It is not about 2014 and it is not about 2015 and everyone wearing a Blueshirt is correct when they say that. It is about this team. It is about this game.
Alain Vigneault, who reveals nothing of substance concerning his evaluation of personnel and has become absolutely impossible to read at this point, has to be kidding if he truly is considering a lineup including both Dan Boyle and Raphael Diaz; has to be delusional if he believes that either of these defensemen — let alone, both — is the solution to the team’s extreme power play meltdown.
Vigneault has inexplicably been pining for Diaz, a nice fellow who is either a seventh or eighth NHL defenseman or a top pair AHL blueliner depending upon his organization’s depth chart and needs, from the moment Diaz was waived to the Wolf Pack at the conclusion of training camp in order not to lose McIlrath.
It never has seemed as if the coach fully embraced that decision. Vigneault’s refusal to play McIlrath unless given no other option has been the head-scratcher of the year. It has become a waste of energy (and words) to lobby for the tough and eager rookie’s inclusion in the lineup. But if Vigneault holds a fixed opinion of McIlrath and the Rangers are thereby forced to move the young man over the summer, then a footnote to 2015-16 will become a flashpoint for the offseason.
The coach’s loyalty to and belief in Boyle is equally maddening. The 39-year-old has had an illustrious NHL career, but he had all of it somewhere else. Boyle has been a below average player throughout his two years on Broadway. Hired to transport the puck and run the power play, he failed so miserably at those assignments that the Rangers felt the need to trade a first-rounder and their best forward prospect (Anthony Duclair) to get someone else (Keith Yandle) to do the jobs for which Boyle had been hired eight months earlier.
Boyle has been on the ice for one five-on-four PPG since Christmas (on Feb. 17) covering 87:39 during the regular season and 11:36 this series. Yet he is the solution? Come on. And let’s agree not even to mention his typical olé approach to defense when Eric Fehr barreled past him (and J.T. Miller) to bury a bad rebound to give the Penguins a 1-0 lead 69 seconds into Game 4.
Still, though, Boyle and Diaz would be third-pair defensemen and second-unit power play people. If the Rangers are going to stay alive and give themselves any chance of becoming the first team in NHL history to overcome a 3-1 series deficit three straight years (a year after becoming the first team in league history to pull off the feat two years in a row), their best players have to be significantly better.
And that means:
1. Henrik Lundqvist
You probably would have to go back to, what, 2009 in the first round against Washington, to find a time when the franchise goaltender was as deficient, complicit in a dreadful effort, and unable to give his team a chance to win as Thursday night’s Game 4, in which he suffered an inglorious hook 6:04 into the second period to cap an inglorious performance.
The Rangers have no hope of winning unless Lundqvist is the best player on the ice, as he was in last Saturday’s 4-2 Game 2 victory. Heavy lies the burden, but it is one the King has embraced throughout his career. Win or lose, it would be shocking if the proud (and somewhat humbled) 34-year-old is not at the top of his game for this one.
2. Derick Brassard
Big Game Brass made an 18-second appearance in Game 2, winning the offensive zone draw to start the sequence on which Keith Yandle got the game-tying 1-1 goal and then scoring on a breakaway soon after for a 2-1 lead. Otherwise, Brassard has lived life on the perimeter and has been unable to find open ice on the power play from which to unleash the best shot on the team.
3. Eric Staal
The deadline acquisition was able to create some open ice back in the middle in Game 4, but the line still reads 0-0-0. Moreover, Staal has been on the ice for eight Pittsburgh goals (three at five-on-five; two empty-netters; two PPG’s and one shorthander) and none for the Rangers.
4. Rick Nash
The team’s best forward in Game 3 was no factor at all in the next one. The Rangers need a 2015 Tampa Bay Game 6 (1-3-4) from Big 61, for whom every game now becomes potentially his last in a Blueshirt.
5. Mats Zuccarello
Hasn’t been able to stick his nose in, win battles and retrieve pucks. Nor has the Norwegian been able to get under the Penguins’ skin. Biggest quandary of year is how and why Zuccarello and Brassard lost the chemistry they had combined to create over the last two seasons.
6. Marc Staal/Kevin Klein
Staal — dominant in the Game 2 victory — has been on for six of the Penguins’ seven PPG’s (and for 10 of their 15 overall) while Klein — horrid on Thursday in New York — has been on for five. These two simply have to be stiffer both individually and as a pair.
7. Keith Yandle
The Yandy Man is the quarterback of the power play, whose deficient entries and rambling possession work have amounted to 0-for-16 five-on-four.