Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted in 2005.
There are no delicate questions left to ask these Rangers, so I tried a blunt one on Chris Kreider after practice Friday:
Do they have enough offensive firepower — even on a good day — to hang with the Penguins and other elite teams?
Kreider did not hesitate, saying, “[Eric] Staal’s got, I think, 13 career hat tricks. Rick Nash has got over 400-something goals, a multi-40-goal scorer. We’ve got guys coming off some career years. So no, offense isn’t a problem. It’s defense in the playoffs; it’s defense first, something we have to get back to.”
There is no disputing the last part of that quote, not for a team whose penalty kill has been picked apart ruthlessly by the Penguins. But offense, too, is a problem for a team that managed one goal (shorthanded) in two home games against a rookie goalie, Matt Murray.
Which brings us back to the original question, one that has been asked of the Rangers for many years now: Can they win it all without the kind of transcendent scorers that many of their counterparts trot out nightly?
Sure, the Rangers had five 20-goal scorers this regular season. But desperate playoff times call for the likes of Patrick Kane, whose season-saving goal for Chicago in the second overtime early Friday morning pushed Rangers-Penguins Game 5 from prime time to mid-afternoon.
Or Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, who totaled three goals and three assists in the Penguins’ 5-0 rout of the Rangers in Game 4 on Thursday night.
Or the Islanders’ John Tavares, who through four games against the Panthers has elevated his already formidable game.
Speaking of the Panthers, Jaromir Jagr still holds the Rangers’ records for goals (54) and points (123) in a season, in 2005-06. After that, Marian Gaborik had two 40-goal seasons in the early 2010s.
Then came Nash, who scored 42 goals in the regular season in 2014-15 but slowed in the playoffs. This past regular season, he had 15 goals in 60 games. Mats Zuccarello’s 61 points led the Rangers — and ranked 35th in the league.
Kreider was right about Staal’s hat trick total, but his most recent one was recorded in January 2013. Nash does have more than 400 goals, if you count the playoffs (404), and three regular seasons with at least 40. But still . . . does he scare opponents?
During the past decade, the Rangers have been known mostly for their defensive personnel, in particular Henrik Lundqvist, the ultimate equalizer. Does he feel extra pressure to be perfect when the offense is sputtering, like a pitcher lacking run support?
“You try to really be focused on your performance,” he said. “When you get involved emotionally or technically with how the team is playing, you kind of lose a little edge in your own game. You try just to stay the course.”
Lundqvist, pulled from Game 4 after allowing four goals, acknowledged “it was a long night,” full of soul-searching. But the Rangers were reluctant to use their recent history of overcoming 3-1 deficits as a crutch. “So much talk about the past,” he said. “It’s now. It’s what we do this year and in this series.”
He said it is “not a good feeling” to be down 3-1 but added, “You can’t feel sorry for yourself. You can’t overthink it. You have to believe you can do it.”
Even if the Rangers still believe, those on the outside are skeptical. After a crush of media here Monday that spilled into the hallway during Alain Vigneault’s news conference, Friday brought an audience that looked more like mid-November.
Vigneault seemed less annoyed by the “firepower” question than Kreider, but he, too, disagreed with the premise. “This team has defended well and it’s also scored goals,” he said. “We’ve done that in the past. We know what it takes and we’re going to go out there tomorrow and put our best foot forward.”
So, most likely, will Crosby and Malkin.