The standings were a liar, the Rangers were imposters and the pages of the calendar seemed to have flipped backward about 365 days.
Friday night represented a flashback to the Nightmare of 2020-21 in which the Islanders were the Blueshirts’ daddies. It didn’t matter that the narrative had been reversed the first five-plus months of this season. It didn’t matter that the Rangers — on their way to the playoffs after a four-year drought — entered the match with a 26-point lead on the Islanders, who are just a month away from going home for the summer.
In the immortal words of head coach Gerard Gallant in the wake of his team’s 3-0 defeat at the Garden, it only mattered that, “We were horses–t.”
This was, quite appropriately, a night of scatological references for the Rangers, who for some inexplicable reason, simply failed to report for duty. For when Gallant’s pithy review of his club’s performance had ended and after Mika Zibanejad had said that, “It was just not acceptable,” Artemi Panarin was asked for his take on the matter.
“So we came out and kind of dirtied up our pants out there,” No. 10 said through an interpreter, who is believed to have, er, cleaned up the winger’s assessment.
It is all but impossible to know where to start with this. Or maybe this wouldn’t all be necessary if the Rangers actually had started their engines with the opening puck drop. Instead, the quintet of Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, Frank Vatrano, K’Andre Miller and Jacob Trouba were sloppy with the puck and were pinned in their end before icing it just 58 seconds into the contest. The remaining 59:02 did not get much better.
“At least we do it together as a team. We do it as a team,” said a disturbed Gallant. “Like the great game we played in Pittsburgh [on Tuesday], we did it as a team. Tonight, we get the other side of it.
“We never got into it. We threw a couple of hits in the third period trying to wake up when it 3-0 but it was too late then. You come to the rink to compete from the start. It looked like we were reaching for pucks all night. We skated in quicksand all night.”
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There was one soft, careless play after another at both lines. None of the marquee athletes were able to rise above the muck. None of the leaders were able to elevate their teammates’ games. One was as bad as the next. That went for Zibanejad, that went for Kreider, that went for Panarin, that went for Adam Fox.
“I wish I had an answer,” Zibanejad said. “I’m not going to take anything away from them, but it’s one thing to lose when you play a pretty good game like the last one we lost to them, a tight game, and another thing like this one where we didn’t come up to our standards or our level.
“That’s on us.”
The Islanders defeated the Rangers 2-1 at MSG on March 17 in a taut, tense match that served as a showcase for dueling netminders Igor Shesterkin and Ilya Sorokin. Shesterkin was back for this one, facing 18 shots while recording a save percentage of under .880 for the fourth time in his past eight starts, but it was Semyon Varlamov who recorded the shutout, his fifth in eight starts against the Blueshirts over the past two years and fourth straight at the Garden. Though Natural Stat Trick credits the Rangers with 20 scoring chances, it is darn nigh impossible to recall a scintillating save at that end of the ice.
You know when it’s bad for the Rangers? When the power play accumulates all of two shots on net while on the man-advantage for 6:00 through an 0-for-3 night, that’s how you know it’s bad. That’s how bad it was in this one, when the top guns — including Trouba — shared prime responsibility for the debacle.
If not for the Rangers’ 13-5 record against the conference’s other seven playoff-bound teams, one might extrapolate danger out of this one. But the lack of effort and absence of any sort of pushback were such exceptions, it is probably best to regard this as a one-off.
Unless, that is, it becomes more than that.