By Larry Brooks
November 24, 2016
New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist (30) deflects a shot by Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2016, in New York. (Julie Jacobson/AP)
Same time, last year.
On Thanksgiving Eve 2015, the 16-3-2 Rangers were humiliated at the Garden 5-1 by the Canadiens, who drove Henrik Lundqvist from nets by scoring five times on 24 shots in 49:06. The defeat precipitated a 3-9-2 skid during which the Blueshirts were exposed as pretenders.
On this Thanksgiving Eve, the 14-5-1 Rangers were embarrassed 6-1 at the Garden by the Penguins, who drove Lundqvist from nets by scoring four times on seven shots in 12:57 of the second, and four times on 17 shots in 32:57 overall.
That, though, is where the similarity should end. Last year’s Blueshirts were a house of cards waiting to collapse, their fast start almost entirely predicated on the brilliance of Lundqvist, who all but singularly negated glaring defensive zone deficiencies and back-checking delinquencies.
This team has earned its record with an impeccable work ethic, commitment to detail and enhanced execution that has triggered the most potent attack in the NHL.
Until this turkey.
“It was one of those games where we were horses–t,” Mats Zuccarello, guilty as charged, told The Post. “It was embarrassing. It was all of us. We win as a team and lose as a team and we really lost this as a team.
“It’s important we address this. Maybe it’s good that this happened now to remind us that if we don’t compete and work hard, then we’re not going to win games.”
The enormity of the rout — triggered by Sidney Crosby — was encapsulated in one astonishing late second-period shift when it was already 4-1. The Penguins played keep-away with the puck, like pros against a bunch of squirts, yo-yoing it to-and-fro in the New York zone for 96 seconds before Conor Sheary’s mercy-killing goal that made it 5-1 at 16:42.
Zuccarello and Chris Kreider were on for 3:07 apiece. Derek Stepan for 2:11. The Brady Skjei-Kevin Klein pair was on for 2:36. If it was painful to watch — and it was, with boos raining down from the crowd while the Pens toyed with their opponents — it was equally painful to be a part of on the ice.
“We were tired? I don’t know,” said Zuccarello, whose earlier turnover up the defensive right boards led to a Crosby deflection that gave Pittsburgh a 2-1 lead at 4:59 of the second. “When you’re tired, your head stops working.”
The Rangers looked lost. They pleaded nolo contendere in the third, outshot 16-0 through the first 16:15. Indeed, the Blueshirts looked almost exactly like they did the last time they played the Penguins at the Garden, in a 5-0 defeat in Game 4 of the first round of the playoffs. Two days later, there was the 6-3 elimination defeat in Pittsburgh in Game 5 that led to a summer of soul-searching and roster refurnishing.
The Rangers attempted to copy the Penguins’ game plan that stressed speed on both sides of the puck. And the remodeling has reaped rewards through the first quarter of the season. Too bad, though, the Blueshirts haven’t been able to replicate Crosby, but then, who has?
Still, even as the Rangers have been a very impressive team, there are issues to ponder as the days get shorter and colder.
At this point, the Blueshirts appear to be a one-trick pony that wins on upper-echelon speed and skill. They have scored four or more goals in 12 of their 21 games, but when they are limited to three or fewer, the Blueshirts are 2-6-1, by far their worst record under such circumstances in Alain Vigneault’s four years behind the bench.
And they have scored courtesy of a 12.39 five-on-five shooting percentage (prior to this one) that is completely disproportionate measured both against the league and historical norms. Indeed, that success ratio — borne by a bushel of breakaway, odd-man rush and spectacular tic-tac-toe goals — is 36.3 percent better than the runner-up Jackets’ 9.09 and 19.7 percent better than the Caps’ 10.35 in 2009-10 that is the best such number on record for a full season since such calculations became public record in 2007-08, per Corsica Hockey.
In a word: unsustainable.
The question is whether the Rangers have enough diversity within their lineup to win when flash-and-dash is dampened; whether the Blueshirts have enough size and physicality to grind it out when the checking becomes tighter and time and space evaporate. That remains to be seen, but if not, general manager Jeff Gorton will be able to work with a projected $10 million in cap space at the deadline.
Same time, last year. Same team?
Better not be.