Rangers’ playoff obstacles now include refs and a lot more

So two full games since Chris Kreider went down Friday night in Philadelphia with a broken foot and no even-strength goals for the Rangers. This, at the top of the stretch of a playoff race, is not what you want.

But do you know what else you don’t want? The brand of laissez-faire officiating on display at the Garden on Tuesday by referees Kyle Rehman and Dean Morton, who apparently already in playoff mode, allowed the Blues to commit up to a half-dozen flagrant violations without bothering to blow the whistle.

The Rangers did get three power plays, capitalizing on the first to take a 1-0 lead on Mika Zibanejad’s score at 12:36 of the first period, but the team should conservatively have had twice as many man-advantages.

“Listen, when that team is allowed to do some of the things they do…” David Quinn said after the Blueshirts’ 3-1 empty-net abetted defeat to the reigning Cup champs. “[The Blues] compete their asses off, so I’m not taking anything away from them, and I loved how we kept playing through it and fought through it, so…”

So, completing the thought, this is the time of year when the time and space shrink, the league’s referees officiate as if it’s 2003, and there’s even more of an advantage to being big and brawny. The Rangers, you may have noticed, are not particularly well known for being either. So that’s another obstacle the club will have to surmount in the attempt to qualify for the playoffs.

The Blueshirts trail both wild-card teams, the Islanders and Blue Jackets, by four points while having played one fewer game than Barry Trotz’s team and one more than John Tortorella’s. The Blueshirts are one point behind the ninth-place Candy Canes, who have played two fewer games. These four teams have gone a combined 5-17-8 over their last 30 games on the treadmill.

The Rangers fell to the Blues today
The Rangers fell to the Blues todayHoward Simmons

So, despite three straight defeats, it is still all there in front of the Rangers, who have the Caps coming to the Garden on Thursday and will have to create a few more chances than they did Tuesday.

This one produced perhaps a dozen legit scoring chances for both squads in a choppy game that generated as much entertainment as a night spent watching laborers paint a picket fence. But these are the Blues, who won the Cup this way and seem to be in prime position for a repeat. They have won eight straight games and kind of think this brand of hockey is thrilling.

No one is shedding tears for the Rangers because Kreider went down or because Igor Shesterkin suffered a broken rib in an automobile accident. Injuries do not provide excuses as much as illumination of organizational strengths and weaknesses. That applies to every team, not just the Blueshirts, and to every sport, not just hockey.

It just so happens that the Rangers organization is thin up-front, and particularly on the flanks. (But strong in nets). Hence, Phil DiGiuseppe playing up with Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich. It is not as if this defect has caught management by surprise. The team did, after all, select Lias Andersson seventh overall in 2017, Filip Chytil 21st overall in 2017, Vitali Kravtsov ninth overall in 2018 and Kaapo Kakko second overall in 2019. But other than Chytil, who has nailed down a spot, the Rangers are still waiting on all of them.

And that includes Kakko, who is here while Andersson skates in Sweden and Kravtsov toils in Hartford. Because the Finn, who has maintained his spot on the second power-play unit, has gone scoreless over his last dozen games with one goal in his last 26 and two in 46 games since Nov. 20. Sometimes you see him, often times you don’t.

But there he was, in front, ready for the rebound left by Jordan Binnington on Tony DeAngelo’s right wing drive with 2:45 remaining in the third period and the Blueshirts down 2-1. There was Kakko, the tie on his stick … until Binnington made the pad save.

But the fact that Kakko was there in the middle of it was encouraging. The Rangers are going to need him to sprinkle one in here and there.

“That’s something he’s learning,” Quinn said of No. 24’s presence in front. “The more often you go there, the more chances you’re going to have and the more goals you’re going to score. You can’t just go there twice a game. It’s got to be in your repertoire. It’s going to be part of your hockey DNA, and he’s learning that.”

Three straight defeats and the offense stalled, it might be time for Kakko to accelerate the learning curve.

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