(Note: For consistency's sake, I will try to put out a blog every week on either Friday or Sunday. Additionally, I would like to use an idea of hockeybuzz.com's Itlan, who links his blogs to a forum in which the comments section is much better. Therefore, my blogs can now be found in the Rangers forum as well as my.hockeybuzz.com. A link will be posted in both locations.)
As the puck reached the stick of Scott Gomez, the $7 million per year forward saw nothing but empty net in front of him. For a millisecond, the fans at Madison Square Garden were on the edge of their seats, ready to explode. But suddenly, as Gomez readied himself to bury the puck and resurrect the Rangers' hopes of beating Calgary, the net, once large and looming, shrunk to the size of a penny.
It would be acceptable, no, it would be overlooked, if such an error was made once in a while. After all, NHL players are human and must be expected to miss the net on occasion. But on a night when the highest paid Rangers, no easy feat by the way, was staring at a net so empty it could have housed a Zamboni, and three times came up empty, it is difficult not to question how far he can lead this team.
Gomez wasn't the only Rangers to throw away glorious opportunities like they were going out of style, but he received, and deserved the cascade of boos that erupted every time he touched the puck in the third period. And in what could have been a dominant win over a challenging opponent, a solid two points if not a major confidence builder, the pathetic Rangers came away with nothing, not even a goal, to show for their efforts. They outshot the Flames 31-20 in the game and 12-2 in the second period, a very impressive job, but nonetheless, they could not score goals on the easiest shots of all.
In truth, this has been the story of the year, best epitomized by the different and equally mortifying ways that the Rangers played on Sunday night and in the two previous games. First came a comeback win against the Penguins that ended in...surprise...a shootout. It featured 30 minutes of standing around followed by 30 minutes of desperate effort. Then came an abhorrent trouncing at the hands of Les Habitants the following night. And on Sunday, the three game trip, and I use trip as a verb not a noun, closed with a great effort but a conclusive loss nonetheless. Thus, the season has gone; the Rangers rarely put out a full effort and on the rare occasion that they do, they manage to lose despite it.
Taking an even more gloomy approach, the rangers have only 3 regulation wins since November 1st, and even those against Tampa Bay, Phoenix and the then-struggling Devils. And while the Rangers have weathered the storm and remained one of the conference leaders in points, their ability to survive in this fashion for the rest of the season is questionable at best. And as to whether this level of play will be adequate in the playoffs, there is no question.
The reasons for the decline of the Rangers are very complex. The jury is still out as to whether the wild success the team enjoyed at the start of the season was merely an aberration or a sign of good things to come. But one major flaw, half of the game for that matter, that has become most apparent is in scoring goals. The flaw is not in scoring consistently, nor in scoring often. It is in scoring period.
The is one complex and deep word that can accurately summarize all that can be said about the Rangers offense this season: Bad. The scores show it, the stats show it and the record is beginning to show it. But one stat seems to fall completely out of line with the rest, and while goals, power play efficiency, etc. all lie in the bottom third of the league, this one offensive stat is actually the 3rd best in the NHL, second to only Detroit and San Jose.
Shots on goal are so integral to success that it is the only stats, save goals, that is listed on the main scoreboard in hockey arenas across the world. And while the Rangers average a whopping 32.5 shots per game, it has not translated into goals. They have the second worst goals per game in the league with 2.36 and when you do the math, their shooting percentage is only 7.3 percent. To put that into context, only 4 goalies give up fewer than 7.3 goals for every 100 shots. So we have discovered the problem, the exact are where success becomes failure and that is precisely the lack of translation of shots into goals, or more simply, finishing.
Although scoring chances per game are one of the few stats the NHL.com Stats Machine does not provide, one who closely follows the Rangers would tell you that the team has had their fare share of scoring chances, Those 32.5 shots, for the most part, have not been those stat-boosters from center ice of poor angles. They have been solid shots, and pretty often have been what could be defined as quality scoring chances. In my opinion, scoring chances are when the entire crowd buys a vowel in resounding fashion (its "o" if you missed it) and that has happened quite a lot for the Rangers this year.
No, the problem has not been the quality of opportunities but the quality of shots themselves. It has been the puck shot over the yawning net, the rubber sliding off the blade on a breakaway, and the one-timer put into the chest of the goalie. Whether it has been complacency and lack of hunger or too tight a grip on the stick and fear of failure, the result has been blown opportunities. A stat I would be interested to see is how many shots taken by a team have missed the net, and once again as a fan I feel the Rangers have had much more than their fare share of those. It is true that they do not have an elite scorer and you understand that conversions per chances will go down as a result. But what you gain by having a more balanced team is more chances but that has been useless as the Rangers convert at such a low rate that the Church is about to annul their missionary status.
For the Rangers, the time has come to be determined to score, but not so much that anxiety reigns. The time has come to be calm, cool and collected but not so much as to be indifferent. And the time is long overdue to earn back the hearts of frustrated Rangers fans who booed you off the ice on Sunday. For even the one-despised Michal Rozsival has returned to our hearts and received the biggest ovation of the night after a stellar defensive play. And maybe Scott Gomez, and all the Rangers, have something to learn from the new and improved defenseman.
View the blog in the Rangers Forum