By Sean Hartnett
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You can't expect to win very often when you get sucked into a track meet with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
For two straight games, the Rangers have been burned by the athletic, fast-skating Bolts. All-world goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was hung out to dry -- again -- throughout Wednesday's 6-5 overtime defeat. Lundqvist has conceded six goals in consecutive losing efforts, as Tampa Bay has gained a 2-1 series advantage.
The Rangers had spoken of their desire to end the sloppy, undisciplined hockey that doomed them to a lopsided 6-2 loss in Game 2. Captain Ryan McDonagh was adamant the Rangers couldn't afford to fall victim to the same mistakes.
"There's a lot of areas here that's very uncharacteristic," McDonagh said Monday. "At the end of the day, it's a loss. We can't afford to do it again. That's the main thing."
The Rangers repeated a losing formula in Game 3. Even though the Blueshirts showed fight, a lack of discipline betrayed them again. They played scatterbrained hockey and their defensive zone coverage was woeful.
Sure, Lundqvist surrendered six goals in Game 3 ... but how many were truly his fault? He demonstrated a steely focus to stop a number of Lightning breakaway opportunities and Grade-A chances. There were moments during regulation when the score could have turned one-sided if not for a number of crucial Lundqvist saves. King Henrik came up huge when Kevin Klein took a bad angle that allowed J.T. Brown to break in alone a little more than two minutes into overtime.
Nikita Kucherov's game-winning goal will be described by some as a softie on Lundqvist's part, but it was a collective fail. The Rangers got caught on a bad line change, allowing Kucherov to roam through a clean patch of ice in the neutral zone. Their top pairing of McDonagh and Dan Girardi were too stationary and allowed Kucherov to skate freely toward the high slot. Neither stepped up to provide resistance against the Russian winger. Lundqvist appeared to react late on the game-winner.
Tampa Bay thrives at stretching the Rangers. The Triplets line of Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Kucherov forced the Rangers to chase all night. Particularly, the McDonagh-Girardi pairing was run ragged when matched up against the Triplets. Overall, McDonagh was on ice for four goals against and Girardi was on ice for three. You expect better from a top pair.
THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY: HERE'S WHERE LOSING STRALMAN REALLY HURTS
Tampa Bay's top defensive pairing of Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman has outperformed New York's No. 1 pair of McDonagh-Girardi all series long. Rangers fans can point to a lack of production from Rick Nash and Martin St. Louis all they want, but this is an even bigger problem. Even if the Rangers' power play continues trending upward, they will have no chance of winning this series if McDonagh and Girardi keep struggling.
The Rangers passed twice on the opportunity to re-sign Stralman. Now, they're getting burned for it. Stralman was the Rangers' best defenseman during their run to last year's Stanley Cup Final. The Lightning are reaping the benefits that come with his steady, possession-strong game.
Following Sunday's practice at Madison Square Garden, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper spoke of Stralman's value as a shutdown defenseman during the Rangers' run in 2014.
"When you come with the package he brought to the table, my glimpse of Anton Stralman was in the playoffs last year, so that's where you get to know him," Cooper said. "He didn't get the fanfare that the Girardis and McDonaghs and Staals were getting – and Stralman always seemed to be the other guy. Yet Stralman, when we go through the tapes, he was always the guy on the ice when the other teams were putting up the best players."
Cooper went on to gush about Stralman, describing him as "the total package" and a franchise-changing defenseman.
"He is definitely one of those guys you do not appreciate until you have him on your team," Cooper said. "His preparation, his calm, his hockey sense, everything, it's phenomenal. He is the total package, and he can play in every situation. I know he didn't play in the power play here (with New York), but he probably could have. He just had other guys ahead of him. But he plays against the top lines. He can play offensively, defensively, and just the way he prepares himself, I can't say enough. That was an unreal signing for us, because he's changed the dynamic of our defense."
Flash back to when the Rangers were weighing whether to lock up Girardi or Stralman. On February 28, 2014, they signed Girardi to a six-year, $33 million extension that kicked in this season. Girardi is hard-working and a tough-as-nails competitor, but he isn't a true top-pair defenseman like Stralman. He is a quality second-pairing defenseman being paid elite defenseman money and asked to perform on a No. 1 pair.
Remember, when the Rangers were negotiating with Stralman last spring, it was before his breakout playoff performance that captured the attention of NHL general managers – of course, including Lightning GM Steve Yzerman. The Blueshirts had their chance to sign Stralman on a more cap-friendly deal than Girardi. The Rangers committed a $5.5 million average annual value cap hit to Girardi through the 2019-20 season.
They're going to get hurt on the back end of that contract. Girardi isn't a particularly swift skater. If he's getting burned by the opposition at 31, that doesn't bode well for when he's 34, 35, 36. Additionally, he does not possess the accurate shooting and puck-moving skills that allowed Stralman to enjoy a nine-goal, 30-assist debut season in Tampa.
For argument's sake, let's say the Rangers gave Stralman the Girardi deal and parted ways with No. 5. It would have been a wiser allocation of cap space. At 28, Stralman is three years younger than Girardi. He excels at skating the puck up ice and serves as a shutdown defenseman against the league's elite forwards. The five-year, $22.5 million ($4.5 million AAV) contract he signed with the Bolts is looking like quite the bargain.
The Rangers passed on Stralman last summer despite his desperation to remain a Ranger. Even while standing in the Tampa dressing room and wearing a Lightning bolt on his chest, Stralman maintained that his desire was to remain with the Rangers.
"Honestly, all I wanted was to come back," Stralman said on Sunday. "I don't think a cap issue was an issue. Definitely not. I think they wanted to move in another direction, and that's fine with me. The only disappointment I had was that they should have told me."
Heading into the offseason, GM Glen Sather had his eyes fixated on Dan Boyle, hoping that the 38-year-old, point-getting defenseman would remedy the Rangers' inconsistent power play. New York opted to sign Boyle to a two-year deal worth $9 million ($4.5 million AAV).
Despite becoming a target of scorn by some Rangers fans for a few high-profile turnovers, Boyle has been fairly solid in the defensive end. He remains a fast skater at an advanced age and his offensive production this playoffs is right where you want it to be – eight points (three goals and five assists) through 15 postseason games.
Boyle is a short-term investment that appears to be working out for the Rangers. He's doing exactly what they brought him here for by producing in the playoffs. Boyle has collected four points (one goal, three assists) in the past two games. All three assists have been on the power play
Looking back at the spring of 2014, it was crucial for the Rangers to make the smart long-term investment when deliberating Stralman versus Girardi. The Rangers would likely be in a rosier situation if Stralman was defending the Triplets in a Rangers sweater.
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