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Hartnett: Rangers May Be Winning, But They Don't Look Good

By Sean Hartnett
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Do not let the misleading 6-3 final score fool you. If you dig beneath the sunny exterior of Thursday's road victory over the Arizona Coyotes, you will find recurrent defensive maladies afflicting the Rangers.

Although the Blueshirts showed a lot of spirit and their power play went 4-for-7, concern for their faltering blue line should outweigh any kind of good feeling generated by a two-game winning streak.

If the Rangers defended this poorly against virtually any other team, they would have been staring at a one-sided defeat at the end of 60 minutes. They kept allowing the feeble Coyotes to hang around in a game that should have been put to bed early. It never should have reached the point where it was tied at 3 with little more than five minutes left in regulation.

After captain Ryan McDonagh was sent to the penalty box at 6:43 of the third for a well-defended play on Anthony Duclair that was bizarrely ruled holding, head coach Alain Vigneault made an unusual decision. He opted to pair Girardi and Kevin Klein on the penalty kill after Marc Staal and Nick Holden finished their shift.

What followed was a four-man folly by Jesper Fast, Michael Grabner, Klein and Girardi. No Ranger touched Martin Hanzal, Radim Vrbata or goalscorer Tobias Rieder. The landing lights were out for the Coyotes to jet toward goaltender Antti Raanta with zero resistance.

Fast skated away from Rieder, allowing him to cut clean through the neutral zone. Girardi backed off the blue line, giving Rieder ample space to dish off to an open Vrbata. No Ranger followed Vrbata, who was left alone at the right circle to provide the give-and-go assist on Rieder's power play goal. Klein was forced to play on his unnatural left side and was exploited by being caught between covering two men.

Had Raanta not come to the rescue with a highlight reel save on Vrbata 44 seconds into the third period when the Rangers' structure unraveled, there could have been a totally different ending. The Rangers are winning games because of exceptional goaltending, while stagnating defensive issues still remain. That's why progress should be valued over bottom-line results.

Rangers HC Alain Vigneault
Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault watches from the bench during the third period of a 6-3 win over the Coyotes on Dec. 29, 2016, in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

On Tuesday, the Rangers were passive and outplayed for most of their 4-3 home victory over the Ottawa Senators. They were heading for a loss, but were bailed out by Raanta's heroics, the clutch play of defenseman Nick Holden and the fiery wake-up calls and drive of seething alternate captain Derek Stepan.

MOREHartnett: Stepan Leading Rangers By Example In Just About Every Way

Then on Thursday, the Blueshirts were saved by Raanta and the Coyotes feeding them endless power play minutes. But the Rangers might as well be on a four-gaming losing streak because they aren't playing much better than they did in recent blowout defeats to the Pittsburgh Penguins and Minnesota Wild.

To his credit, Vigneault hasn't been ignoring the elephant in the room that is the worrying play of Girardi. He broke from routine by sliding Girardi down to the third pairing alongside Brady Skjei. Sheltered minutes against the 11-20-5 Coyotes didn't help the struggling 32-year-old alternate captain, as it was probably his worst performance of the season.

The Rangers were pinned in their own end for long stretches while Girardi and Skjei were on the ice. Girardi committed an unnecessary icing under no pressure, which allowed Arizona to take an offensive zone faceoff and eventually cut into the Rangers' 2-0 lead late in the first period.

Combining the past two games, there has been an alarming amount of unforced icings by Girardi and times he has been burned out wide. Plus/minus might be an archaic stat, but he's minus-8 over the past six games and hasn't recorded a point in 12 contests.

Unless something changes soon, where can Vigneault hide him? It would be painful to stick a prideful, popular teammate like Girardi and his $5.5 million cap hit in the press box, but what choice will the Rangers have if his game doesn't rebound? Judging by Vigneault's usage, he doesn't appear to have much faith in Adam Clendening pushing Girardi for playing time. The 24-year-old right-hander has only skated in nine games, collecting three points.

Surely, minor leaguer Ryan Graves has something to offer with his 6-foot-5, 216-pound frame and 103 mph shot. The Rangers are very high on him. Director of player personnel Gordie Clark said during prospect development camp in June that Graves could "push some guys" in training camp. The 21-year-old left-hander has 17 points, including 13 assists, in 30 games with the Hartford Wolf Pack.

Make no mistake, there were some positives for the Rangers to take from their win in Arizona,  namely their movement and execution on the power play, Matt Puempel's first career hat trick and a two-point night from hot-handed defenseman Holden. Once Rick Nash and Mika Zibanejad return after Jan. 1, they will provide needed two-way energy and support in the defensive zone.

Still, there's some worrying trends going on with the Rangers defensively, especially on the right side. Superior netminding and bursts of scoring won't always be able to cover up the cracks in their own end.

Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey

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