NEWARK – The Rangers have the bigger names, the bigger paychecks, the bigger brand and the bigger playoff resume. But now they have a big, big problem.
After being skated out of the Prudential Center on Thursday night in Game 5 of a first-round playoff series, the Rangers need an abrupt recovery to survive the weekend.
There was no sign they are ready for that in the Devils’ 4-0 victory, which gave New Jersey three victories in a row and a 3-2 series advantage.
The Devils were the better team in the first period, and better than that in the second, and better still in the third, during which they outshot the Rangers, 19-2.
At times New Jersey made the Rangers look like the Sioux City Musketeers of the USHL, the team Devils goaltender Akira Schmid was playing for two years ago.
Now? Schmid has allowed two goals in his first three career playoff games – and the Rangers are scrambling for answers.
“Two goals in three games is not going to cut it in probably any playoff series in this league,” Jimmy Vesey said. “Their goalie’s been solid, but I still don’t think he’s been tested enough. We have to find a way. That’s the bottom line.”
Whatever disadvantage New Jersey had because of its inexperience entering the series is long gone.
The only things that mattered on Thursday were that they were the faster, feistier, fitter team.
How can the Rangers counter the Devils’ superior speed?
“Not feeding into it would be a good start,” Jacob Trouba said. “I think turning over pucks and feeding their transition is not a way to win against that team.”
Game 5 somehow was worse for the Rangers than Game 4, a 3-1 loss after which coach Gerard Gallant was harshly critical of his players’ effort.
Having played that card already, he was more supportive after Thursday’s flop, saying he liked the effort, even though he acknowledged the result was subpar.
“It wasn’t good enough, obviously,” he said.
If the Rangers do not win two games in a row to advance, starting with Game 6 Saturday night at Madison Square Garden, it will be a profound disappointment.
This is a team built to win now, full of stars who have failed to come through when it counts most.
It took 39 seconds for the Devils to exceed the Rangers’ scoring total for the night.
Vincent Trocheck won a draw, but the puck went back toward the Rangers’ goal, where Igor Shesterkin had to make a save.
The puck rebounded into the slot, where Ondrej Palat outhustled the Rangers to it, and he popped a shot that hit Adam Fox’s stick and sailed over a sprawling Shesterkin.
Patrick Kane was called for tripping Jack Hughes 1:28 into the second period, which led to the second goal.
As the power play expired, Erik Haula tipped in a shot by Mercer. It dribbled past Shesterkin at 3:28 to make it 2-0.
That led to derisive chants of “I-gor, I-gor.”
The Devils made it 3-0 with a shorthanded goal at 13:32 of the second when Dawson Mercer buried a pass from Haula on a two-on-one rush.
The Rangers allowed a fluky goal, a power play goal, a shorthanded goal and an empty net goal, completing a sickly cycle of sorts.
Now, it’s back to the Garden, where the Rangers are 0-2 in the series.
“Got to find a way to win Game 6,” Trouba said. “It’s all there really is at this point.”
Said Chris Kreider, “We’ve had a terrific fan base all year. We let them down, we let ourselves down, at home [in Games 3 and 4]. So it’s up to us to play the way we want to play from puck drop.
“It’s the clichés and the euphemisms I throw at you [reporters] all year. It’s time to step up and do those things. It’s time to play a full 60, and it’s time to win a hockey game.”
Stranger things have happened, and the Rangers deserve a right to prove they can overcome back-to-back debacles to get the job done.
But there was no sign of that on Thursday, and warning signs for the franchise beyond that.
For now, the Rangers are headed back to the big city, but looking more like they belong in Sioux City.