Distinctly non-competitive? Check.
The Rangers’ 4-0 loss to the Maple Leafs at the Garden on Thursday night, their first game since Jan. 25, was far from the type of game that a team fighting for a playoff berth should roll out, especially at home. Henrik Lundqvist was pulled for the second straight start early in the second period after allowing four goals on 13 shots.
“Obviously, the desperation needs to be there every night. I have to start with myself,” Lundqvist said. “I have been feeling pretty good for a while, but the last two starts are something I need to work on and just get the quickness going.”
The Rangers looked more like a team carrying the weight of the trade rumor mill on their shoulders. Sure, the Maple Leafs sharpened up on Wednesday with a 5-0 rout of the Islanders, and the Rangers, who had lost three of the last four games, were rusty after a week without lacing up for a game. But that is no excuse.
Said Alain Vigneault, “We had two really good practices prior to this, so we should have been better than this. There were definitely some plays we needed to make.”
The trouble for the Rangers, who wore their Winter Classic jerseys, began early. They couldn’t hold on to pucks, connected with more passes to the speedy Leafs than their own teammates in the first period and couldn’t test backup Curtis McElhinney (25 saves) despite two power plays. Said Rick Nash: “When you play against a fast team, you can’t play into their transition. It was on us. We didn’t get the puck deep at the blue line and their transition game came back on top of us.”
At 8:42, Justin Holl’s wrister from the right circle went through Zach Hyman’s legs and past Lundqvist, who was yanked in Anaheim after three goals on seven shots in 16:21. Then Connor Brown gave a sweet lead pass to James Van Riemsdyk, who burst ahead of Mats Zuccarello, deked Lundqvist and made it 2-0 at 15:23.
In the second, Brady Skjei blocked Patrick Marleau’s shot, but Nazem Kadri retrieved it and got it to Marleau. With Kevin Hayes and Zuccarello looking on, he beat Lundqvist stickside at the 52-second mark. At 3:05 of the second, the Leafs went up 4-0 on Hyman’s 10th and Ondrej Pavelec relieved Lundqvist.
Even when a frustrated J.T. Miller smashed his stick on the glass near the Rangers’ bench midway through the second period, causing a long break for repairs, the Rangers didn’t regroup. They drew boos at the end of the second period.
“We made some mistakes on rushes and we gave them grade-A looks, and we weren’t able to create much against them at all,’’ Marc Staal said. “You want to start off the last third of the season on the right foot, so it’s frustrating. We’ve got to find ourselves in the next day or so.”
The Rangers played the third period without Pavel Buchnevich, who was hit high in a collision with Jake Gardiner in the second and did not return. Vigneault said Buchnevich was hit in the jaw “and so they kept him out. That’s all we have now.”
With 31 games left, the Rangers need an immediate wake-up call. Said Ryan McDonagh, “We don’t have enough time and enough games here that we can afford to let down our guard and let down our structure and playmaking ability when we have the puck.”