Ryan McDonagh was being cross-examined by the assembled media late Sunday afternoon, a few minutes after the Rangers’ Lost Weekend had come to an end.
New York had dropped consecutive 4-2 and 5-2 decisions to the Bruins and Capitals, and the captain was answering decidedly pointed questions about his team as the playoffs draw near.
“Our preparation and our focus and our execution definitely has to be better,” McDonagh said. “We’ve proven we can do it. It’s a matter of getting off to a good start and slowly building your confidence. There is no question this team can compete with anybody and win on any given night. It’s just a matter of us getting to our game and our strength of our game on a consistent basis.”
Indeed, as the Metropolitan Division leaders begin the final seven games of this season starting Tuesday night in Winnipeg, the Rangers find themselves having split their last six contests. In that stretch, the Rangers have allowed three goals a game while scoring 21 times. Further examination shows the league’s third best team has only connected on one of its last 10 power plays despite the presence of McDonagh, Rick Nash, Dan Boyle, Keith Yandle, Martin St. Louis, Derek Stepan, amongst others, on the man advantage units.
By any standard, it’s not an ideal blueprint for a team with Stanley Cup aspirations.
“I don’t think we had enough shots,” said Nash, after the Rangers were outshot 31-25 by the Capitals. “Everything opens up after a shot. That didn’t happen.
“We’re just not playing our system. When we’re playing well, we’re getting pucks deep [and not committing] turnovers. I can tell just watching from the bench there are a lot of turnovers. We’re making it hard on ourselves.”
So the question becomes one of how and when to correct flaws, measured against the importance of achieving the tangible goal of home ice in the playoffs. The Rangers clinched a berth with their 5-1 win over Ottawa on Mar. 26, but find themselves in a race with Montreal and Tampa Bay for home ice advantage throughout the Eastern Conference Playoffs. The Rangers and Lightning each have 101 points, while Montreal has a conference-best 102.
The Rangers have two games in hand on Montreal and Tampa, both of whom entered Tuesday having played 77 games this season.
“In my estimation and I’m sure in my players’ estimation, there is a lot to play for,” Alain Vigneault said. “We are playing for home ice advantage, we haven’t secured that. You also want to go into the playoffs playing the right way. [There was] a lot of hockey on our plate this week. I am not using that as an excuse, but it’s the reality of the situation. We [seemed] to come up short a couple times [against Boston and Washington, so we] just need to refocus and get ready for Winnipeg.”