RALEIGH, NC—Stop. Just stop with the obsession with matchups. Every team in the league faces these issues on the road. So does every coach. And neither the Rangers nor Gerard Gallant were shying away from the issue in Thursday’s Game 5.
In fact, for the first time in the series, the coach sent the Chris Kreider-Mika Zibanejad-Frank Vatrano line out for the opening faceoff while knowing darn well they would draw the deservedly celebrated Nino Niederreiter-Jordan Staal-Jesper Fast unit.
This was Gallant and the Rangers accepting the challenge right from the get-go. Top lines have been matched against checking units since time immemorial. It is their responsibility to overcome the opposition.
Hoo boy, did things go terribly wrong. Terribly wrong for that line and terribly wrong for the Rangers, dominated in every which way for at least the final 35 minutes in a 3-1 defeat that sends this series back to the Garden on Saturday where the Rangers will face Game 6 extinction.
On this night, you had better believe the ‘Canes were a superior hockey team. They had more gumption. They were far more attentive to details. They kept coming and coming and coming. It wasn’t only the Zibanejad unit, and oh by the way, it wasn’t only the matchup, for No. 93 and No. 20 were just as ineffective when on against lines centered by Sebastian Aho and Vincent Trocheck
“They did a good job of pinning us in our D-zone. There were certainly a handful of plays where I could have gotten it out on the wall by making better decisions,” said Kreider, who just didn’t seem right at all. “Personally I’ve got to do a better job.”
The line was overwhelmed. Zibanejad did wire home his sixth of the playoffs on the power play to bring the Rangers into a 1-1 tie late in the first period, but No. 93 was as ineffective generating offense as Kreider. They could not get through the neutral zone. They barely had possession in the offensive zone.
Indeed, with the Rangers trailing 2-1 after the second period after a “goal” by Ryan Strome — by far the club’s best top-six forward, and that is not meant to damn by faint praise — was wiped off the board by an offside challengeGallant switched up his combinations for the third period, moving Filip Chytil up in Vatrano’s place and moving Alexis Lafreniere up with Strome and Panarin.
A total of 10 shots through two periods will do that for you.
At that point, the Zibanejad line did not have a single shot at five-on-five. They’d mustered only four attempts while being hammered in attempts. The line’s xGF rate was 17.49 percent. It was ugly. And Panarin hadn’t recorded either a shot or an attempt. Maybe Gallant adopted the misery-loves-company approach when he replaced Chytil with No. 10 on the top unit midway through the third. Nothing happened then, either.
This is not to make these guys scapegoats on a night when the ‘Canes were faster, harder, more committed and just plain better in every facet excluding goaltending. But come on. It is incontrovertible that the Rangers will desperately need more from their marquee forwards if they are going to overcome this 3-2 series deficit and advance to a conference finals confrontation with the mighty Lightning.
“It was a group effort, it really was,” Gallant said. “I mean, when we win and play well it’s a group effort but I thought this was just a total team that looked tired, I really do.
“Obviously no team wins without their top guys. I’m not disappointed in my top guys. I’m disappointed in my team.”
The ‘Canes went through an enervating seven-game series against the Bruins just as the Rangers had against Pittsburgh. Both teams have played 12 postseason contests. If there was fatigue on the Blueshirts’ side, perhaps it was mental. The Rangers finished with a total of 17 shots on a night where they honestly did not pass up many at all. It is well-nigh impossible to recall a remarkable save by Antti Raanta. They could not get through the neutral zone.
“I think it’s a decision from all 20 guys, and we talked about this between periods, to support each other with the puck and advance it instead of just being there,” Kreider said. “We have to be there to make a play. We’ve got to do it the entire game.”
So Saturday night, Game 6. It would be foolish to write the Blueshirts off, but they will certainly have to do a better job on the matchup.
The matchup that is Rangers-Hurricanes.