The first instinct was to write 750 words about the Rangers in the wake of their playoff clinching 5-4 overtime defeat to the Sharks in San Jose on Tuesday that could have been titled, “Zed is Dead II—The Sequel.”
And perhaps after the final five regular-season games and another four, five, six or seven tournament matches in what assuredly will be a first-round crossover against Montreal or Ottawa, that will serve as apt epitaph for 2016-17. The simple truth is that for more than a month, in winning only six of 16 games (6-7-3), the Rangers for the first time have begun to resemble last season’s team. And that is not a compliment.
But despite the recent follies, this group deserves the benefit of the doubt. Its work ethic and attention to detail have been commendable — exemplary, really, until this extended malaise developed — and that stands out in direct contrast to last year’s club. It is a team that has never taken the season for granted, an approach pledged during training camp and upheld through the marathon, and again, in direct contrast to last year.
A seventh straight playoff qualification and 11th in the 12 seasons of the hard-cap era obviously isn’t everything, but it surely merits recognition at least for these moments before the club is tested in the crucible.
Surely there are troubling issues for coach Alain Vigneault to confront, primarily a defense that has devolved into chaos and alarmingly does not appear to present a single reliable pair at this late date, and at the other end an instance on making one pass too many that borders on pigheadedness. The personnel’s collective absence of physicality and pugnacious DNA is disquieting at this time of year.
But even though the Rangers were overrun for huge stretches of their three-game California tour in which they beat the Kings, lost to the Ducks and then got the loser’s point against the Sharks, they were still able to come home with the three points necessary to clinch…