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Hartnett: Rangers Are Broken, Punchless Without Zuccarello

By Sean Hartnett
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Take Mats Zuccarello out of the equation and the Rangers are broken. Down 3-1 to the Washington Capitals and staring the prospect of elimination in the face, the Blueshirts are desperately missing the impact brought by the little Norwegian who plays with enormous heart and wizard-like skill.

The Eastern Conference semifinals have shown why Zuccarello is irreplaceable. His energetic style of play has a way of willing teammates into finding that extra gear -- and that extra belief. The diminutive winger wins puck battles and plays a tenacious, infectious style of hockey.

Without Zuccarello, New York's scoring-depth issues have become exposed. Besides playoff dynamo Derick Brassard, it's hard to see where the goals are coming from, as he's the only Ranger to score a goal in the last 164 minutes of play. Zuccarello is the most creative player on the team by far. The magic appears to be in short supply with him sidelined.

All series long, Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault has juggled and mix-and-matched his lines trying to find a way to break through against a Capitals team that plays the kind of anti-hockey that predecessor John Tortorella made famous during his five-year stint behind New York's bench. Now, the Rangers are getting a taste of their own medicine as Barry Trotz's shot-blocking Caps are extremely tough to break down.

Washington blocked 25 shots compared to the Rangers' seven in Game 4. That tells you everything you need to know. The Rangers are out-possessing and out-chancing the Caps. They just don't have that creative spark.

"Our game has been, my estimation, good," Vigneault said. "We've just got to find a way to do a better job in the offensive zone. We're getting the looks, just not obviously beating their goaltender, or beating their forwards and their defense, who are doing a real good job in front of him. Our puck possession was good tonight. We'll turn the page, won't dwell on the past, and focus on the next game."

Make no mistake, Washington goaltender Braden Holtby is having a strong series. The Rangers just aren't making him work enough. They aren't forcing Holtby to move from side to side and aren't capitalizing on second-chance opportunities. Some are making Holtby out to be Henrik Lundqvist... but he's not Lundqvist. He's solid netminder who isn't being properly tested.

Goalie Braden Holtby #70 of the Washington Capitals makes a save against the New York Rangers during the second period in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals during the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Verizon Center on May 6, 2015 in Washington, DC. The Washington Capitals won, 2-1. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

"Well, there is no doubt that he has been good," Vigneault said. "He has made some big saves and their players, obviously in front of him, have done a good job of blocking shots and blocking lanes. So, it has made it real challenging for us right now."

King Henrik has done everything possible to give the Rangers a chance by allowing no more than two goals in any game this series. Having gone up 1-0 at 6:12 of the second period through Brassard's top-shelf strike, the Rangers were unable to find a way to nail down a victory by finding a second goal. All of this magnifies the misplay made by captain Ryan McDonagh along the wall at center ice that allowed Andre Burakovsky to score the eventual game-winner 24 seconds into the third period.

"It's definitely not over yet," McDonagh said. "Our group knows that and we'll continue to lay it all on the line here."

Burakovsky is what the Rangers don't have. They don't have that guy who steps up and provides secondary scoring.

Zuccarello remains out indefinitely due to what the Rangers have described as an upper-body injury. It's looking like the Blueshirts received a knockout blow when McDonagh accidentally shot the puck into Zuccarello's face in their series-clinching Game 5 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins. They haven't been the same team since.

Follow Sean on Twitter – @HartnettHockey.

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