The Rangers lately have found themselves playing the same basic game over and over and over again, like some sort of Groundhog Day on Ice performance. And following five straight losses (four of which have come in regulation), they're sinking closer and closer to the playoff bubble — the one it had once appeared they'd be able to avoid this year.
The basic structure of last night's 3–2 loss to Detroit is nothing we haven't seen before: The Rangers fell behind — first 1–0, and later 3–1 — only to cut the deficit to one and see their last gasp attempt to tie the game ultimately fail. They again squandered power-play chances, including a golden opportunity in the closing minutes. (Sean Avery played a nice game all around, but his ability to attract stick blades to his face could have proven to be his biggest contribution, had the Rangers capitalized on the late power-play time those high sticks created.) Meanwhile, a combination of Rangers defensive lapses and the Red Wings' skill level dug the Blueshirts yet another hole, even though they peppered Jimmy Howard with 47 shots on goal. (If only Pavel Datsyuk needed one more day to recover.) By comparison, Detroit registered 35 shots on Martin Biron, getting his second straight start as John Tortorella tries again to ride the hot hand and give Henrik Lundqvist some time off after a couple of shaky outings.
And once again last night, Marian Gaborik failed to score — his fifth straight game without a goal, and his seventh in the last eight. (He at least tallied an assist, on Brandon Dubinsky's goal.) The Rangers may have an identity as a blue-collar team that earns its goals with forechecking and hard work along the boards. But on some nights — particularly when they make life hard for themselves with mistakes in their own zone — it's not enough. And earning two points is all the more difficult when Gaborik, their most dynamic offensive player, can go such long periods of time without scoring. The return of Vinny Prospal hasn't done much to jump-start No. 10. And last night, John Tortorella even experimented with moving Brandon Dubinsky to the center position of Gabroik's line. But Gaborik's gone through so many linemates this year it's hard to believe a permanent fix will be quite so simple.
Just a couple weeks ago, a 1–0 win over Vancouver highlighted all that's right with this team and what it's capable of when it puts together a complete game. Yet since then, things have mostly gotten worse even as the team's gotten healthier. Indeed, on paper at least, we thought the lines used at the beginning of last night's game were among the most logical we've seen all season. The result, though, was the same as it's been for the past two weeks.
The Rangers may once again be fighting for their playoff lives this year. And suddenly, Friday's game against ninth-place Atlanta looks a lot more important.