NEW YORK – Passive.
That’s how multiple players described the New York Rangers after a third-period collapse Saturday that won’t be easy to shake from their collective psyche.
Head coach Gerard Gallant took it a step further, calling the Blueshirts’ late-game effort ’embarrassing’ and ‘unacceptable.’
They entered the final period at Madison Square Garden with a three-goal lead. But by the time those final 20 minutes had elapsed, they were on the wrong end of a stunning 4-3 loss at hands of the visiting Edmonton Oilers.
‘We got put on our heels,’ captain Jacob Trouba said. ‘I don’t think we really got off them.’
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An all-too-common dropoff in the Rangers’ play had devastating repercussions.
They surrendered three goals in a span of 5:42, allowing Edmonton to tie the score and silence the home crowd. Then, with 2:02 to play, the Oilers capitalized on a power play that ended with the winning goal from Leon Draisaitl.
‘We were awful,’ Gallant said after witnessing his team get booed on their way off the ice.
The third-period meltdown left the Rangers (10-8-4) searching for answers − a search that proved fruitless in the immediate aftermath of the jarring collapse.
‘I don’t know what to say to you,’ Gallant said. ‘We talked about it in between periods. We talked to the players. Sometimes it just happens. It’s disappointing. We had a couple of timeouts. We tried to reset and (say), ‘Let’s get going again.’ … But then they get four goals in the third period for no reason besides us giving them opportunities and two dumb penalties.’
A call to ‘bring it up a notch’
Before the game, Gallant called for a collective look in the mirror.
‘I think everybody can bring it up a notch,’ he said. ‘We’ve been okay a lot of games. We’ve played well, but I think our record could be better – should be better – than what it is. We can be a better team.’
The Rangers recently passed the quarter pole of the 2022-23 season, having won less than half of their first 21 games. That left them one point out of a playoff spot entering Saturday in the increasingly tight Eastern Conference, which explains why Gallant asked his team to dig deeper.
For two periods, they appeared to heed their coach’s call to action. They built a three-goal lead and entered the third firmly in control.
But once again, they were doomed by a period in which they couldn’t stop their own downward spiral.
‘I thought we played a great two periods – exactly how we wanted to play – and then we come out in the third period and get careless, sloppy a little bit. We always talk about putting pucks behind defensemen and make them play in their own zone. And when we turn pucks over there, they end up in the back of the net. They get momentum. We played too much time in the D zone and that’s what happens.’
Evan Bouchard was responsible for Edmonton’s first two goals, with the first coming on a power play that resulted from a hooking penalty on K’Andre Miller.
Then came Dylan Holloway’s first career goal that came off a rush caused by an errant pass from Trouba. And, finally, after Alexis Lafrenière got whistled for removing an opponent’s helmet, Draisaitl finished the comeback with a late power-play goal.
Meanwhile, the Rangers managed only six shots on goal in the final period and zero high-danger scoring chances, according to Natural Stat Trick.
‘We become a little bit too passive,’ Mika Zibanejad said. ‘You want to go for it. You want to keep playing like we did in the first two. It’s hard once you become as passive as we did – and that’s on us. I’m not saying that we should chase and risk for a fourth goal, but we stopped doing the things that we did in the first two periods. And that’s a good team. You give them anything, they’re going to take advantage of it – and they did.’
Gallant agreed with the passive assessment and pointed the finger directly at his veteran leadership group to sort it out.
‘They better have a chat with them,’ he said. ‘There are a lot of guys responsible. It’s a team collapse.’
Trouba noted it would be addressed Sunday, but added, ‘Right now, nobody is in a good mood.’
The frustration is mounting − putting the onus not just on the players, but also on the coach to figure it out.
A promising start
It began in such promising fashion.
Lafrenière’s third goal of the season came on his very first shift, courtesy of a sweet setup from Adam Fox. All the 21-year-old forward had to do was tap it in from his net-front position to give the Rangers a 1-0 lead 2:20 into the game.
That lead lasted for 33:14 of play, with goals from Artemi Panarin (offside) and Braden Schneider (goalie interference) being reversed by Edmonton challenges in the meantime.
The Rangers would keep pushing, though, with Chris Kreider and Julien Gauthier scoring within 33 seconds of each other late in the second period to push the lead to 3-0.
For Kreider, his 10th goal tied him with Zibanejad for most on the team. And for Gauthier, his goal set a new single-season career high. His previous high was three in 49 games last season, but he’s already hit four in 14 games this year.
Mixed results with Artemi Panarin on the top line
Gallant has cycled through line combinations like clean underwear the past few weeks, with Saturday yet again featuring a new starting lineup.
He finished Wednesday’s 3-2 loss in Anaheim by grouping his three best forwards − Kreider, Zibanejad and Panarin − on the top line together.
Both he and previous head coach David Quinn had been reluctant to do that, but Panarin’s drought of 11 games without a goal − a span in which the 31-year-old managed only three total points at five-on-five − prompted the change.
‘I just wanted to give (Panarin) a little shot in the arm up there with those guys,’ Gallant explained. ‘He doesn’t like to play right wing, but he said he’s fine with it. So, we’ll see how it goes.’
Panarin nearly broke his goal-less streak twice − once on a power-play goal that was overturned due to an offside and later on a one-timer that Oilers goalie Jack Campbell barely trapped underneath his arm − but he earned an assist on Kreider’s goal.
Still, he didn’t hide his disappointment at his ongoing goal-scoring woes.
‘I haven’t scored the last 12 games,’ he said. ‘That frustrates me. If I scored the last game, I probably wouldn’t feel like that. But I try keep doing what I do – and try to better. I don’t know. I’m just going to try to keep shooting and hope something goes in.’
Panarin was asked to make a rare start on the right side, shifting from his usual left-wing position. He admitted to some growing pains.
‘It felt pretty good,’ he said. ‘I’m not used to playing the right side. It was the first game for me on the right side. Sometimes I take shifts on the right side, but not for the full game. For me, it’s difficult in one space – the half wall in the D zone. And then just sometimes I forget I’m playing on the right flank and naturally go on the left side in the D zone. Kreids a couple of times saved me by just going on the right side. But it wasn’t that bad.’
The Kreider-Zibanejad-Panarin trio wasn’t on ice for any goals against, but they were out-chanced, 2-8, with four of Edmonton’s scoring chances registering as high danger.
Gallant broke them up in the third period, reverting back to the combos he had used during last week’s West Coast trip. That meant Jimmy Vesey on the top line with Kreider and Zibanejad, while Panarin slid down to play with Vincent Trocheck and Barclay Goodrow.
Where will the Rangers turn next? Add that to the list of questions with no clear answer.
Vincent Z. Mercogliano is the New York Rangers beat reporter for the USA TODAY Network. Read more of his work at lohud.com/sports/rangers/ and follow him on Twitter @vzmercogliano.