By Dubi Silverstein
So let's take stock: Now that the Rangers have gone so quickly from heroes to zeroes, not only losing their last three in a row, but also giving up more goals in those three losses (16) than they allowed in winning their previous seven straight (13 goals against), what went right during the winning streak that is now going so wrong?
Marian Gaborik is still scoring, and the power play still converts when it gets a chance (though the number of chances has dropped by more than a third). Henrik Lundqvist is still making a ton of huge saves, but he obviously is not making as many as he did before.
in losing 5-4 to Montreal on Saturday night, Ranger backcheckers failed to hustle back on three separate occasions to defend the against the goal scorer (Mike Cammalleri, in all three cases, including the overtime game winner)—Chris Drury coasting in on the first, Chris Higgins on the second, and Gaborik there on the OT goal but not committing himself (twice!) to making the defensive play that would have stopped the scoring chance.
Another goal resulted from an odd-man rush after a Brandon Dubinsky giveaway, and the fifth was a five-on-three power play goal after bad penalties by Vinny Prospal and then Higgins.
All five times, Lundqvist was left defenseless against uneven manpower situations, and those were hardly the sum total of such situations—he stopped the rest.
The same thing happened the prior game against the Devils when Dan Girardi and Marc Staal conspired to allow all three goal scorers free reign on Lundqvist; again, not the only three times—just the only three he was unable to stop.
So it's not the goaltending that's the problem, and not the offense. It's exactly what everyone thought was going to be the Rangers' Achilles' heel from the get-go—defense.
Girardi has borne the brunt of the criticism, being on the ice for 10 of 15 non-empty net goals scored in the past three games. Staal, who committed many of the turnovers that Girardi was unable to cover up for, has not been called out publicly despite being on the ice for nine of those goals.
Six of the seven goals the pair was on the ice together for were scored by the opponent's top line—San Jose's Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley, and Devin Setoguchi (with 18 goals and 23 assists between them in 12 games); the Devils' Zach Parise, Dainius Zubrus, and Jamie Langenbrunner (nine goals and 14 assists in nine games); and Montreal's Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta, and Cammalleri (11 goals and 13 assists in 10 games).
That begs the question, where are the Rangers' five and six-point-five million dollar men, the duo eating up over 20 percent of their total salary cap?
Michal Rozsival, since being benched for the latter half of the Rangers' fourth game of the season, has been relegated to sixth defenseman. He's been steady since his benching, going +1 in these last three defensive debacles, but he's being steady against lesser lines than Girardi and Staal are facing.
Wade Redden, also earning praise for his steady defense, plays as much as Girardi and has been on the ice for four goals in the past three games, but two were against lesser lines. Neither has gotten much power play time, like they used to, that task now falling to rookies Mike Del Zotto and Matt Gilroy.
Up front, the dichotomy is even easier to spot. Gaborik, Prospal, and Ales Kotalik are doing all the scoring. Higgins, Drury, Ryan Callahan, and (in recent games) Dubinsky are doing almost no scoring.
Sean Avery, Artem Anisimov, and Enver Lisin are contributing just about what one would expect from the playing time—certainly far more on a per-minute basis than the three main non-contributors. The fourth line has done nothing but was never expected to.
It's telling that three of the four players having trouble scoring were three of the four players who made the critical errors in Montreal.
Head coach John Tortorella held two of those players accountable, benching Higgins for the entire third period and overtime, and doing the same to Dubinsky from the point at which he committed his costly turnover.
Drury, with just two goals and three assists, just one goal and two assists in the last nine, pointless and -2 in the seven contests in which he has failed to register a point, and below .500 on face-offs, escaped discipline (though he did hustle back on the second Cammalleri goal after failing to do so on the first).
Here's the problem as I see it. Tortorella has made no bones about it—he wants his team to pressure opponents all over the ice, and if odd man rushes ensue, so be it. He has, as he has often said, the best goalie in the NHL to take care of those.
The goals against that have piled up these past three games have mostly been scored off odd-man rushes—all three five-on-five goals by Montreal, two of three non-empty netters by New Jersey, and four for San Jose.
Yes, the defense has been lax, even lazy on just about all of those goals.
But is it a mindset? Has Tortorella drummed it into his players that Lundqvist will bail them out every time? Is that why they don't backcheck as hard as they forecheck?
I said from the start, the Rangers will go as far as Gaborik can carry them offensively, as long he stays healthy, and as long as Lundqvist can carry them in net, as long as he doesn't cave under the pressure of all the saves he has to make on his lonesome.
Has he already started to cave? Not cave as in letting in bad goals, because that hasn't been the case, but cave as in not making all the game-saving stops he was making during the win streak.
Tortorella has rolled the dice on his young defensemen, letting his overpaid veteran duo off the hook in terms of responsibility, and he's rolled the dice on Lundqvist, letting his team as a whole focus on offense rather than defense.
He has held a few players accountable in terms of ice time and public outing, but with the exception of Rozsival (a Czech), those have been directed at young players, not veterans, who remain coddled by this organization. Drury and Redden are not feeling any heat—indeed, both have had the pressure to lead the team on the ice taken off of them.
Dubinsky was not guilty of laziness on the play that got him benched—he was guilty of being overly aggressive with the puck, carrying it in the neutral zone rather than dumping it (and he did not turn it over; he was stripped on what was an excellent play by Matt D'Agostini).
Isn't that exactly what Tortorella wants? Isn't that exactly what he says Lundqvist is there for, to stop that odd-man rush? Redden, to name one veteran, has committed numerous giveaways in his own zone, unforced errors, but was not treated the same way.
Not to excuse a player for being lazy on the backcheck or for taking a bad penalty, a chronic problem so far this season, especially when the team is already killing a penalty. Nor for any player or the team as a whole coming out flat to start a game, which has often been the case this season, even when the Rangers were winning.
But don't these things also fall onto the lap of the coach—especially one who has de-emphasized defense and has been unable to stem the tide of penalties and bad starts?