ST. LOUIS — The alarm went off again on Tuesday. Was the 5-2 loss in Newark enough of a wake-up call? The Rangers can’t afford to be sleeping here or in Dallas on this road trip against two Western Conference contenders this week.
Yes, the Blueshirts have been third in the East for all but one day since Feb. 5, but the Islanders are getting too close for comfort (three points behind with two games in hand), as some players have acknowledged. The 5-2, coming-apart-at-the-seams defeat to the Devils is in the rear view mirror, and some flaws were exposed. If they resurface against the Blues and Stars, it won’t be pretty.
The Blues, who host the Rangers Thursday, are 19-10-4 at home and fourth overall in the NHL with 79 points; the Stars are 20-8-0 at home and are second in the league with 82 points. The Rangers, on pace for 100 points, have 74 points, but 16 of the final 22 games are against teams currently holding playoff spots.
In their first meetings this season, the Rangers beat both the Blues and Stars, but at Madison Square Garden. On Nov. 12, the Rangers defeated St. Louis, 6-3, with six different players scoring on only 22 shots. On Jan. 5, they decked Dallas, 6-2, with Derek Stepan scoring twice, once shorthanded. Derick Brassard scored in each game.
On the plus side for the Rangers, it appears that one or both of the club’s top defensemen will return Thursday. Marc Staal, who missed Tuesday’s game with a lower-body injury, and Ryan McDonagh (bruised jaw) should be back. Rookie defenseman Brady Skjei was returned to Hartford Wednesday. If both dress, it is likely Dylan McIlrath, or perhaps Dan Boyle, will be a healthy scratch.
Although coach Alain Vineault singled out veteran defensemen Boyle (minus-3), Dan Girardi, Kevin Klein and Keith Yandle for poor decisions that led to goals, the forwards didn’t help out, unable to clear pucks or create any offense in the second and third periods in New Jersey. The penalty-kill is improving and did keep the score 3-2 during seven minutes of Devils power plays in the third. But the Rangers were not persistent enough to draw any power plays themselves.
A disappointed Henrik Lundqvist, who said he couldn’t readily remember a game with as many odd-man rushes and breakaways against him, noted that the Devils were “hungrier.” One statistic underscored the issue: The Rangers blocked only six shots.
And clearly, the Rangers are hoping for a more balanced offense, especially without Rick Nash (bone bruise, left leg), who remained in New York.
Chris Kreider hasn’t scored in eight games. The once-hot J.T. Miller? No goals in seven. The two young Swedes, Jesper Fast (one goal in 18 games) and Oscar Lindberg (0-for-17), are pushing the pace but not finishing.