The big surprise this season is not that the Rangers have lost five games in a row, it's that they have gone this deep into the season before sustaining their first such streak. You'd be wealthy if Vegas had extended odds on that happening and you took that bet back at the start of the year.
This season has been about developing a team. Developing teams go through such growing pains. The Rangers have remarkably been immune to it until now. And still, every one of these losses has been a one-goal loss, with real chances to pull a rabbit out a hat every step of the way.
And that's with a pair of rookie defensemen (Sauer and McDonagh) hunkered down on the second unit, making smart steady plays most of the way. And with a pair of rookie forwards (Stepan and Zucarrello) forming the nucleus of the most consistent forward line, the one that has been most effective on the forecheck.
And that's with a pair of former fourth line forwards early in the second hundred games of their careers (Prust and Boyle) stepping up to energize the team in all three zones. And with a pair of sophomore offensive defensemen going through the ups and downs of becoming major league blueliners.
This losing streak is no reason to press the panic button. This is not the time for the faithful to test their patience. We wouldn't have wanted the youth movement unplugged had these losses come in October or November, so let's not allow that to happen now just because the playoffs have unexpectedly come into sight.
On the other hand, there is the coaching. John Tortorella pushed all the right buttons all season long. He insisted the young guys get the chance. He insisted a Six Million Dollar Man on defense be banished to the minors and went with the untested Sauer right from the get-go. He demoted his $7 million captain to the fourth line to keep the upstart youngsters up front on the ice.
And he got them through a serious rash of injuries. By sticking to his work ethic and his system, they came back from one deficit after another, and kept doing it through one devastating injury after another. Dubinsky and Callahan carried the team through Gaborik's early season absence, and everyone else carried their load when they went down.
But now Tortorella has to step up to the plate. Marty Biron played well enough in Detroit to gloss over the foolhardiness of keeping Lundqvist on the bench two and a half straight games after one bad outing. The impact on Lundqvist's confidence remains to be seen -- as much of a competitor as he is, he may yet make Tortorella look like a genius while I eat my words.
The power play is different story, though. If there is one area where a coach has the ability to make an impact, it's on the power play. Numerous chances to complete the comebacks in all of the recent losses were squandered with the man advantage. The latest example was last night -- three minors, two of them overlapping, in the closing minutes of the one-goal loss to Detroit.
When you get one shot on goal every 65 seconds at even strength but only one shot on goal every 115 seconds with a one- or two-man advantage, it's no wonder the coach eventually sends out his third line on the power play to play their usual five-on-five game. But that just underscores the continuing failure to make a difference on the power play in more traditional ways via coaching.
You also have to wonder what game Tortorella watched last night after he called out Prust and Dubinsky for errors leading to goals, errors that just weren't there. On the first Detroit goal, he said Prust made a blind pass into the middle -- in fact, Boyle was stripped by Datsyuk behind the Ranger net and then he failed to stick with the ultimate goal scorer as the play went to the net.
On the second Detroit goal, Tortorella said Dubinsky blew his coverage, forcing Prospal to have to race over to pick up his man. In fact, Dubinsky was covering down low for Prospal, who was out by the blue line. The blown coverage was Prospal's, not Dubinsky's -- and then, after the turnover, Dubinsky stuck with his man, who had no part in the scoring, while Prospal let his man go, and that's who scored the goal.
Then there is the ongoing Gaborik situation. Kudos to Tortorella for getting significant ice time to the guys who are actually making things happen -- Step and Zuke, Cally and Dubi, Wolski and Avery, Prust and Boyle. And for the most part sticking with the line combinations that work best, though he juggles them eventually when there is no need to do so.
Meanwhile, the utterly useless Christensen centers Gaborik. And just what is up with Gaborik? As time wound down on the Rangers' last power play, there was a moment where he had a chance to get to a puck at the left point, but he never hustled and allowed Zetterberg to get there first and clear.
Tortorella has to get Gaborik more ice time and a better center -- two birds that can easily be killed with one stone by benching Christensen and moving Dubinsky to the middle, where he has a history of working well with goal-scoring right wingers like Jagr and Zherdev.
Tortorella was working on a bona fide case for the Adams Trophy for his work with this young, injury-decimated corps of players. Now he has to compelte the case by a) getting a viable power play on the ice, b) getting Gaborik a viable center, c) ceasing to call out key contributors when they didn't even do anything wrong, and d) ceasing to put Lundqvist's long-term confidence at risk with short-term thinking (though the jury is out on that one).