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The question of whether this Rangers team can show up in big moments against stiff competition was answered in the last three losses to the Islanders.
It is obvious that the makeup of the Blueshirts, who entered the 2020-21 season as the youngest squad in the NHL, is not built to outmuscle anyone. They are what they are: A group that is loaded with skill up front but is consistently outmatched physically.
Head coach David Quinn has pointed out that the Rangers are certainly not constructed like the Islanders, Bruins or Capitals. However, they do have assets that many other teams don’t, and it’s something they need to use to their advantage.
But in the last five games that weren’t against the bottom-dwelling Sabres, the leading veterans — Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich — combined for two even-strength goals.
The three have a combined 69 games of playoff experience. They were the ones the youngsters were looking to as the race for a spot in the postseason grew tighter. But it’s evident that even they needed the practice in meaningful games.
“As the season winds down, the games become more playoff-like and they become harder, and that’s what we need,” Quinn said prior to Saturday’s loss. “We need to continue to learn how to play in hard games.”
Panarin has been held without a shot on goal in just five games this season. Four of those came against the Islanders, including the last three. His last goal was in the 3-2 loss to the Flyers on April 22, which came with two minutes left in regulation to make it a one-goal game.
Zibanejad, who skated in his 600th career NHL game Saturday, put forth the Rangers’ most spirited effort in the loss. Leading the team with seven shots on goal, tying his season-high, he also had eight faceoff wins (8-for-16) with one drawn penalty in 19:48 of ice time.
He put up four goals in the two games against Buffalo but wasn’t able to carry it over to the last two matchups with the Isles.
“I can probably count maybe two or three times where we kind of countered off a mistake [the Islanders] had,” Ryan Strome said. “The rest of it, we had to kind of chip it in and go get it. That’s something we obviously need to improve on, in terms of adding to our repertoire — creating some greasy offense. We know we can make seam passes and play off the rush, but chipping it in and creating some zone time.”
Adam Fox logged a game-high 22:30 of ice time in Saturday’s loss. The 23-year-old defenseman has led the Blueshirts in ice time in 42 of the team’s 51 games he’s played in this season.