It is a tossup, trying to figure out who needs the NHL’s Christmas recess more: the Rangers, who looked totally bewildered again Sunday night, or the nets at which their opponents have been shooting. The team and the twine both have been taking a pounding.
The Rangers had a short burst of hope at the Garden, then it was their hope itself that burst. Their recent slide crashed into a low point with a 7-3 loss to the Capitals, who are as hot as the Rangers are cold. The Rangers have lost three straight, and 6 of 7.
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Henrik Lundqvist got pulled after two periods, which did not stop a spurt of six goals in a row by the team that continued on a 12-1-1 roll. The Rangers kept rolling, too. Downhill — on a 3-9-2 clip. Most distressing for them is the fact they have allowed five goals or more in five of their past six games.
Just Sunday morning, Alain Vigneault was asked to identify bright spots amid the 1-4-1 stumble. He didn’t come up with any. “It’s been a challenging stretch. I don’t think one specific player has stood out in a positive sense, but I do believe that a tough stretch, where you’re being tested physically, where you’re being tested mentally, makes everyone better and will make our team better,” the coach said.
For a while Sunday night, it looked like improvement was at hand. After a here-we-go-again goal by Justin Williams put the Capitals ahead at 12:03, the Rangers briefly caught fire. J.T. Miller put a charge into the Garden when he tied the score only 1:39 after his team had fallen behind. Chris Kreider, who has been trying to find his game, found the puck and put the Rangers ahead. Finally, Dan Boyle ripped a power play one-timer past Braden Holtby at 18:03 for a 3-1 lead. The place was buzzing for the Rangers as well as for Paul McCartney, shown on GardenVision happily waving a Rangers puck (after he spent the afternoon watching the Nets).
But the Rangers didn’t have long to believe that all their troubles seemed so far away. There are reasons why the Capitals have the most points in the Eastern Conference and why they overcame a 3-0 deficit against the Lightning Friday.
“This group has been pretty resilient,” coach Barry Trotz said. “There’s a belief. When we play our game and play with detail in terms of being physical . . . executing our breakouts and doing those kinds of thing, we can play with anybody in the league.”
They looked like they were in a league of their own in the second period. They blitzed the Rangers with four goals — two within 1:36, two on power plays — to take a 5-3 lead. The barrage featured Alex Ovechkin’s blast from the left circle — his favorite spot — as well as goals by Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie and a second by Williams.
All of it left the crowd booing at the second intermission and caused Vigneault to pull Henrik Lundqvist for Magnus Hellberg to start the third period. He was no match for Jason Chimera’s shorthanded breakaway at 2:26. He failed to stop the second shot against him, too, by Marcus Johansson and the Rangers looked they were desperately ready for the break that begins Wednesday — or that they had begun it early.