Rangers’ defensive disaster leading to unfair scapegoat

David Quinn seems at least somewhat aware that there was a growing amount of noise — warranted or unwarranted — surrounding his veteran assistant coach, Lindy Ruff. It seemed inevitable, as Ruff helps manage the defense that is surrendering the second-most shots against in the league (35.3), as well as the penalty kill, which is ranked 25th (77.1 percent) mostly by way of a few stupendously bad games.

So twice over the past few weeks, including during the Rangers’ successful four-game western road trip when they went 2-1-1, Quinn, unprompted, mentioned Ruff by name in terms of the improving penalty kill.

“I give Lindy a lot of credit,” Quinn said back on Nov. 30. “He’s worked awful hard at it, and our guys have really responded. That being said, you go from one extreme to the other, which tends to be our habit, no matter what topic it is.”

A lot might have happened in the past two-plus weeks since Quinn said that — well, if a lot is the fact that the Rangers have spent the past 10 games following every win with a loss, one defeat in overtime and one in the shootout coming in the trip’s finale, a 4-3 loss Saturday in Anaheim. In the five games prior to Anaheim, the Rangers’ penalty kill had gone 13-for-13, but against the Ducks, they allowed two power-play goals, including the game-tying tally to Hampus Lindholm with 1:56 remaining in regulation.

“Unfortunately, when we struggle on the PK, it seems to come in bunches within a game,” Quinn said after that contest. “So this one certainly didn’t help us.”

David Quinn (l) and Lindy Ruff
David Quinn (l) and Lindy RuffAP

There was quite a bit for Quinn to be happy about during this trip, and it will likely come back into better perspective once there is more distance between him and the shootout loss to the Ducks, where a skill competition soured what could have felt like a huge road trip. The club had a day off Sunday before the Predators come in for a Garden match Monday night. Then the Blueshirts will have three days to relax and practice before three games in four nights, including a back-to-back before the three-day Christmas break. Then comes the New Year’s trip to Toronto and Western Canada.

It was a road trip through Florida a month ago when the attention turned toward the penalty kill, losses in Tampa and Sunrise, Fla., when the Rangers allowed seven power-play goals on 11 chances. There was the embarrassing 9-3 loss to the Lightning, followed by a 4-3 loss to the Panthers that put the Rangers at 8-8-2 on the season and made things seem rather bleak.

But this club is nothing if not plucky. They managed to pick off a few more wins before the seesaw of alternating wins and losses began after Thanksgiving, getting them to 16-12-4, three points out of the second wild-card spot going into games on Sunday. Yet during this stretch, the Rangers have been more consistent defensively — although far from perfect — which is something they needed with the stated goal of making the playoffs.

“Your special teams are pivotal,” Quinn said, “but not only are they pivotal, they’re pivotal at key times.”

A perfect example of that would be the power-play goal Mika Zibanejad scored early in the third period in San Jose on Thursday, tying the game, 3-3. Then after Zibanejad gave them the lead just under five minutes later, Kaapo Kakko was called for a trip and the Blueshirts had a huge penalty kill. They executed to perfection, allowing Artemi Panarin to score twice down the stretch (one empty-netter) to complete his hat trick en route to a heartening 6-3 win.

“You’re not going to come upon two bigger situations for your special team to deliver,” Quinn said, “and they delivered.”

So it goes for these Rangers — up and down, stop and start. And so it only makes sense that the same goes for their penalty kill. It’s just in the nature of this young team, no matter which coach is in charge.

For more on the Rangers, listen to the latest episode of the “Up In The Blue Seats” podcast:

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