We woke up Sunday morning to find the New York Rangers mired in perhaps the greatest adversity the franchise has faced during John Tortorella’s tenure as Head Coach. A lackluster 3-0 loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night continued a season where this supposed Stanley Cup contender has not seen the Rangers find their game on a consistent basis.
The power play is non-existent. The loose puck battles, a Tortorella staple, are being lost all too often. The Tortorella grinding forecheck has been there solely on occasion. And, the Rangers best players have been anything but that, with Brad Richards, Marian Gaborik, and Ryan Callahan playing inconsistent at best, Henrik Lundqvist brilliant sometimes but not others, what was supposed to be a deep and rugged defensive corps look lost at times, and the younger Rangers superstars fail to hold their own against more talented and experienced teams.
Is all lost this season? As the Los Angeles Kings proved a year ago, simply getting to the playoffs gives any good team an opportunity to win the Stanley Cup, but for this Rangers team hope is beginning to fade that they can overcome what has plagued them thus far to become a contender when (and more importantly, if) the postseason arrives.
There is a big difference this year for the Rangers compared to a year ago, particularly considering that this team was supposed to be better than the one that made to the Eastern Conference Finals a year ago.
So what is missing? In a word, system. There is no talent deficiency, but instead a system shutdown. What hockey experts failed to explain during preseason analysis that predicted Stanley Cup fortune, was that this Rangers team went on a remarkable run last season not as much because of who played the games, but because of how the games were played. The shot-blocking, hard-hitting, forechecking, grinding group that earned the “Black and Blueshirts” moniker simply wore teams down with their style of play. Combined with arguably the best goaltender in the world between the pipes, and opponents simply could not get enough oxygen to beat the Rangers on a regular basis.
The Rangers won two playoff series via sheer will despite their best player, Gaborik, rendered ineffective by a shoulder injury, and then wore down the New Jersey Devils during the Eastern Conference Semifinals to the point where the Devils had little left for the final round. The Rangers’ philosophy was simply to win, or wear out an opponent in the process of losing.
2013 is a different story. Some can blame injuries, a concern becoming more valid by the game. Others can point out that younger Rangers have not quite panned out.
The truth is that this Rangers team is not necessarily built for the system it is expected to employ. It may not have seemed this way at the time, but players such as Brandon Dubinsky, Brandon Prust, Ruslan Fedotenko, and Artem Anisimov brought an element to the ice that secondary players on this current team provided. They did not light up the scoreboard, but they did not need to. A shift with Dubinsky or Prust meant a shift where an opponent would be challenged every inch of the ice, pounded along the boards, and battled for a loose puck. Those Rangers were rarely the fastest or most talented team on the ice, but they were the most rugged and determined, and when their skill players took over, the Rangers won. A lot of that is missing this season.
The 2013 team is missing a certain element, and it started showing during the last week more than any other point this season. It’s not an offensive thing or a defensive thing, it’s a system thing. There is a way Tortorella wants his team to play, and this team has proven thus far to not be capable of doing so consistently.
Simply put: The 2013 Rangers are wearing down nobody, they are getting out-grinded, and the trench warfare they were renowned for has yet to emerge. In other words, with the system breaking down, better teams are simply playing better.
Is all lost? Of course not. Assuming key players return from injury and are effective, when this roster is at 100%, they are capable of beating anybody in a playoff series, assuming a playoff series is coming. However, the reality of a shortened season is that bad habits need a short shelf-life, and this Rangers team is in a bad habit of not executing its own system. Regardless of who is on the ice, that needs to change in a hurry, or the 2013 season is going to end literally as fast as it began.