NEW YORK — Remember what we were saying about the Winnipeg Jets running into another desperate team?
Well, the New York Rangers fit the bill and it ended up being another one of those head-scratching nights for the Jets at Madison Square Garden in what was ultimately a 4-2 loss to a team that had been blanked in consecutive games and won only three times in their past 10.
Did we mention they were in jeopardy of losing their hold on the eighth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference if they were unable to beat the Jets?
Make no mistake, this was not a loss to some cellar-dweller. The Rangers have no shortage of talent, but they’ve been almost as tough to predict as the Jets this season and plenty of observers have wondered aloud why they’re not found higher up in the standings.
This evening, I got a first-hand look at the potential the Rangers have and once again, it was captain Ryan Callahan leading the charge.
The Jets have made a habit of falling behind early of late and Monday was no exception, as Derek Stepan scored just 19 seconds into the game to send the Rangers’ fans into their fight song.
But if you thought the Jets were going to get blown out of the water, there was Nik Antropov all alone and sliding the puck through the pads of Henrik Lundqvist at 1:15 to even the score and start a stretch of impressive play for the home side that included Zach Bogosian blasting a point shot in at 12:54.
“The first was good, outside of the first 19 seconds,” said Jets defenceman Ron Hainsey. “But when you go up 5-on-3, it looks like you’re going to go up 3-1 hopefully, if you make a play. Instead, they end up getting one.”
There’s little doubt about the turning point in this one.
It came at 3:11 of the second period, after the Jets were unable to convert their sixth two-man advantage of the season.
Shortly after Mats Zuccarrelo jumped out of the box, Callahan walked in on the 2-on-1, danced around a diving Toby Enstrom and then went to the backhand deke for one of the prettiest goals I’ve seen live this season.
“He made a good move. Nice goal,” said Pavelec. “It’s pretty clear that we’ve got to be better defensively. That’s for sure. We had our chances tonight and we didn’t score. Overall, we have to put in a better effort to win the game. If you want to make the playoffs, we’ve got to be way better.”
Callahan has played a lot of good games against the Jets and to me, he essentially willed his team to this win.
“I have been struggling to put the puck in the net lately. I want to contribute,” said Callahan, who had a goal and three assists and was in on all four Rangers’ goals. “I want to put points up and help the team win. I think anytime anyone is struggling, just to get that first one, it’s a relief and it helps get you going.”
Pavelec is bang-on. If the Jets want to make the playoffs — and despite the three-game slide, they continue to hold down top spot in the Southeast Division by four points over the Carolina Hurricanes (three games in hand) and Washington Capitals (two games in hand).
Just to add a little intrigue, the Hurricanes and Capitals face off on Tuesday, when the Jets are back in action against the New York Islanders (currently in ninth point, but with the same point total as the Rangers but one more game played).
But we digress.
What changed in second period, aside from the shortie?
“They played like we did in the first period,” said Jets centre Olli Jokinen. “They chip the puck in, they didn’t turn it over and we had trouble getting out of our zone. They kept pressing and pressing. We had a good first period, the second period wasn’t good enough and same thing with the third.”
The Rangers started to control the play after the shorthanded goal (the third allowed by the Jets this season) and never looked back, restoring the lead at 5:46 of the third period when Stepan had an Anton Stralman rebound land right on his tape.
Stepan snuck behind Bogosian, who was still in pain after blocking a shot by Callahan with his left foot earlier in the same shift.
Then at 13:07, Rick Nash ripped a shot past Pavelec for an insurance marker.
Other things that stood out about Monday’s contest:
* Scary moment to see Jets D Grant Clitsome take a stick to the left eye early in the game on a weird play. Jets C Alex Burmistrov was engaged with Rangers C Brian Boyle and Boyle actually grabbed Burmistrov’s stick and it ended up catching Clitsome underneath his visor.
Clitsome went to the dressing room and didn’t return, though Jets head coach Claude Noel said after the game that he thought the D-man was going to be okay. Noel wasn’t sure if Clitsome would “be a player” Tuesday and we’d figure it’s highly unlikely. That could open the door for Mark Stuart to return to the lineup after missing the past six games.
* Clitsome’s injury meant the Jets were forced to play 5 defence for most of the contest. Dustin Byfuglien led all skaters with 29:17 (two seconds more than Rangers D Dan Girardi). Byfuglien ended up -2 in the game, but played a bit better than he has been, finishing with six shots on goal, two hits and two blocked shots (with no giveaways).
“Obviously, it puts more ice time on everybody but it’s a good challenge,” said Jets D-man Derek Meech. “It’s always tough losing a guy like Grant in a tight game like that.”
* It was another three-line game for the Jets, as fourth-liners Alex Burmistrov (eight shifts, 7:37), Chris Thorburn (five shifts, 2:21) and Patrice Cormier (three shifts, 1:39) didn’t see a lot of action.
“The other thing that’s difficult is that if you play with three lines, it starts to wear on your heavier-minute guys,” said Noel. “Those things add up as the game goes on. Those are things that you face. That’s just the reality of the game. With what we’ve got, that’s what we have to get done.”
Unless the Jets add a forward before Wednesday’s trade deadline, it will be interesting to see if the Jets stick with what they have or perhaps give a guy like Aaron Gagnon a shot as a call-up. Following an injury-plagued and slow season, Gagnon has found his game and might get a look soon.
* Speaking of that trade deadline, Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff shared his thoughts with the traveling print reporters during the first intermission and you can read about that on Tuesday and at www.winnipegsun.com. Cheveldayoff wasn’t about to reveal any secrets but made it clear that he was keeping an open mind and kicking the tires on a number of things. While it’s doubtful the Jets pull off a blockbuster, I figure they’ll make at least a couple changes between now and Thursday’s game with the Montreal Canadiens.
* There were some quality post-game comments coming out of the dressing room, starting from captain Andrew Ladd, who was showing plenty of accountability, as were several others who took question. Be sure to check them out in my game analysis column here: http://www.winnipegsun.com/2013/04/01/rangers-make-jets-pay-for-poor-pp-with-4-2-win
Here’s one leftover quote from Noel, who was responding to a question about what has changed for the Jets during the losing streak.
“I let you answer that,” said Noel. “The Ladd, Little, Wheeler line has not scored for four games. When we don’t get production from them, that might put you on the right side of the game. It’s not like they’re not trying. They’re getting a lot of attention. So that doesn’t leave you scoring a lot of goals past that. We’ve scored zero, one and now two. You can look at it however you want. That puts more stress on the power play. Those aren’t excuses, it’s just real. So you’ve got to get production somewhere else.
“Either that or you have to defend better.”
The Jets, who have 11 games left in the 48-game schedule, don’t get much time to shake off this latest loss as they face the Islanders Tuesday.
“We have to come out with a very similar first period, outside of the first 25 seconds or whatever that was,” said Hainsey. “Get plenty of pucks on net, plenty of traffic and get a lead. That was the idea. Up until the expiration of the first penalty on the 5-on-3, we had done most of what we wanted to do. So, something similar along those lines. We had guys working, drawing penalties, which is a good sign for us. Obviously, we need to keep the momentum on our side throughout.”
The Islanders are one of the worst teams in the NHL on home ice (6-11-2) but are showing improvement and enjoying a playoff push of their own.
Should make for another interesting tilt during the stretch run.
Talk to you in the morning from Long Island.