The moves the New York Rangers made at the NHL trade deadline last week were widely hailed as bringing much-needed balance to their forward lines.
But balance in their overall game continues to be elusive, as their defensive shortcomings are not allowing the Rangers to get any traction in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
There was some good news on that front Tuesday, as defenceman Marc Staal skated for the second day in succession in his recovery from a serious eye injury. However, despite speculation he should be ready for the playoffs at the end of the month, if not earlier, Staal said there is no timeline for his return.
His facial fractures have healed, but his vision is still not 100-per-cent.
“I don’t foresee any problems,” Staal said of his comeback. But first, he needs to get back into game shape. “Obviously, I want to be back as soon as I can. There’s no timeline or date yet. I’m just working as hard as I can.”
The sight of the Rangers’ best defenceman skating by himself before practice was certainly encouraging for his teammates, who have seen their defensive efforts slip of late. The Rangers have been depending too much on goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who made 48 saves last Saturday to seal a win over the Carolina Hurricanes, but could not do the same in Monday’s 4-3 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Rangers close out the home-and-home series with the Leafs on Wednesday, at Madison Square Garden.
The Rangers desperately need a win to stay in the five-team race for the last three playoff spots in the East. It is shaping up as a battle between the three teams in the New York area, as the Rangers were tied for seventh with the New York Islanders before Tuesday’s games at 42 points, with the New Jersey Devils two points behind in ninth.
“At the beginning of the year, we were sharper defensively,” centre Derek Stepan said. “We can’t have those breakdowns. It’s not only on the [opposition] goals. There are other breakdowns out there.”
The worst ones, though, are in the Rangers’ end of the rink. While forward Ryan Callahan admitted the Leafs gave the Rangers “fits” with their speed, defenceman Ryan McDonagh said they are giving into the temptation to chase opposing players too often, which leaves the front of Lundqvist’s net wide open.
Two of the Leafs goals Monday came when someone was left alone in front of the Rangers net. Thirty-nine seconds after the Rangers fought back to tie the score 3-3 in the third period, winger Phil Kessel capped a great night for Toronto’s top line when he found himself uncovered in front of Lundqvist and scored the winning goal.
“I felt we had them,” Rangers head coach John Tortorella said, adding that clearing up the defensive woes is the priority right now. “We don’t need the lead, we just need to play with a tie for a while. We can’t let them score on the next shift.
“This isn’t just the defencemen we’re talking about. It’s the whole group.”
However, Tortorella decided he didn’t want to talk about how he will fix matters. “I’m not going to name names. It’s something we will address with the team.”
McDonagh was a little more accommodating. He said the Rangers defence has to stop “running away from our net.” He, too, did not name names but the pair of Michael Del Zotto and Dan Girardi, who were minus-2 and minus-3, respectively, were particularly guilty of this against the Leafs.
“It’s just simple positioning in our zone,” McDonagh said. “We run around too much. We’re allowing them one or two whacks at the puck. We have to learn not to chase someone into the corner. That allows you to stay between [an opponent] and the net.
“We’ve always said our strong defensive play will help feed our offence.”