By Sean Hartnett
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Consider the Rangers' 5-3 defeat Tuesday to the Vancouver Canucks as a sobering lesson that any legitimate Stanley Cup contender must heed. If you take your eye off the ball on any given night in the NHL, you will get burned.
The Blueshirts failed to match Vancouver's level of desperation. Their poor execution, costly turnovers and lack of aggression had head coach Alain Vigneault admitting, "Nobody even had their C-game."
"Our execution was nonexistent," Vigneault said. "We couldn't make a 10-foot pass, and when you execute like that and you can't pass and you can't put your speed on display – we didn't deserve to win today. That's it. It's that simple.
"We told our guys to be ready and to prepare," he continued. "You have got to prepare yourself mentally to go on the ice and execute. There are no easy games in this league, and this was proof of it."
Owning a league-best goal differential and riding a five-game winning streak into Tuesday, the Rangers deservingly earned plaudits from opposing coaches, television analysts and writers for their scoring depth and lightning speed. No team has bettered the Rangers' 4.14 goals for per game or their 14.0 shooting percentage, or has generated more takeaways than the Blueshirts' 145.
If there was a team ripe for the picking, it was the hapless Canucks. Vancouver arrived at Madison Square Garden mired in a nine-game losing streak and had lost 4-2 to the Islanders on Monday. Their top offseason recruit, $6 million winger Loui Eriksson, had been a microcosm of Vancouver's miserable start. The 31-year-old Swede entered the game absolutely snakebitten with zero goals through his first 13 games.
Eriksson was signed to inject fresh blood into a Canucks team that has largely been reliant on aging twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin. Vancouver is dead last in the NHL with 1.86 goals for per game, has the second-worst power play conversion rate at 9.3 percent and the second-fewest shots per game at 27.4. Yet on Tuesday night, Eriksson broke through with his first goal of the season, and serial pest Alex Burrows notched his first and second goals of the new campaign.
Vigneault refused to blame the sudden exit of goaltender Antti Raanta factoring into the loss. The Finn had to be replaced in the third period because the league's spotters deemed he had to go through concussion protocol. Franchise goaltender Henrik Lundqvist came into the game cold and surrendered two goals on six shots before Raanta was able to return to game action.
"At the end of the day, I don't think that was the difference in the game," Vigneault said. "When the league calls down and says the spotter wants him out, then you've got to take him out. That's what we did. We followed the rules."
Raanta said his head hit the ice, but he knew he wasn't seriously hurt because the symptoms were far different than what he experienced last December when he missed three games due to a concussion.
"Last year when I had the concussion, I had way different symptoms, so I knew that it's going to be fine," Raanta said. "I just tried to do (concussion testing) as quickly as possible and come back to the game. It's not easy; it's not easy to leave like that."
The bigger factors in the Rangers having their streak snapped was their struggle to get the puck out of their own end and a lack of desperation.
"They were a desperate team, and they played like it tonight," captain Ryan McDonagh said. "They won more puck battles than us, and they had the puck a little bit more than us, and when they had opportunities to score, they bared down and capitalized."
For the Rangers, it's better to learn these tough lessons in November than once the playoffs get underway in April.
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