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Things haven’t gone according to plan for Rangers, Devils

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So Jack Hughes, who started the season with a bang, has recorded one point (an assist) over his last five games, five points (1-4) over his last 13, and I am just wondering how David Quinn can be held responsible for this 19-year-old’s lack of production?

Actually, it would be something relatively new for the Rangers’ coach to negate the 2019 first-overall pick’s offensive capabilities on Thursday at the Rock, because he and his team were sure unable to do that in the first two installments of this season’s Battle of the Hudson.

Hughes’ speed was dominant throughout the Devils’ 4-3 victory at the Garden on Jan. 19, in which he recorded a pair of goals and assist. He was held off the board in the next go-round at MSG on Feb. 16 – in New Jersey’s first game in 16 days following a league-mandated COVID shutdown – but nevertheless was a key to his team’s 5-2 triumph in which the Devils’ transition game caught the Rangers flatfooted.

“We’ve just got to be more consistent with our effort, we’ve just got to match their speed, and we’ve got to play a more honest game against them,” said Quinn, whose team had lost three straight to the Devils dating back to last season’s March 7 match at the Garden, two days after Mika Zibanejad’s five-goal night against the Caps. “They’re defending well, they’ve got a quick team, they’re fast and we’ve got to finish checks.

“That doesn’t mean you run out of your way to maul people, but you’ve got to win your battles and you’ve got to make sure you play through people on this team to slow them down, and we just haven’t done that consistently enough in the games we’ve played.”

The Devils are all about up-tempo hockey and turning from defense to offense, like Team North America at the 2016 World Cup. Lindy Ruff, who’d been the Rangers’ assistant coach in charge of defense the last three years, is back in his element as the head man behind the New Jersey bench this season.

Funny thing, though, for all the emphasis on what has been advertised as a unique system, the Devils entered this match 24th in the NHL with 2.56 goals-per-game (not counting shootouts), had been limited to five goals in their three-game regulation losing streak, and had recorded 15 goals through a 1-6 stretch.

The Rangers, too, were supposed to be able to score some goals. But with Artemi Panarin missing six of the first 20 games – two with an unidentified upper body issue and the rest while taking a leave that stretched into a seventh-overall absence on Thursday – and Zibanejad apparently having swallowed a near-fatal dose of Kryptonite, the Blueshirts don’t score all that much, either.

Jack Hughes skates against Pavel Buchnevich in the Rangers' matchup with the Devils on Feb. 16.
Jack Hughes skates against Pavel Buchnevich in the Rangers’ matchup with the Devils on Feb. 16.
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Fact is, the Blueshirts ranked just behind the Devils in goals-per, nestling in at 25th in the league at 2.55 per, and indeed are come off their puniest back-to-back offensive performances of the season.

The Rangers sent just 19 shots on Carter Hutton in Tuesday’s 3-2 victory over the Sabres at the Garden, in which the team had three shots over the final 30:28 and was overwhelmed 57-32 in five-on-five attempts for a season low 36.78 pct share of Corsi. This was two days after the Blueshirts had 21 shots against Tuukka Rask in Sunday’s 3-1 defeat to the Bruins.

Defense has been the Rangers’ friend this year, even if that wasn’t so against the Devils. And it is true, as Quinn pointed out in his pre-game press briefing, that his team had 50 shots on net in that first meeting, but it is just as true that New Jersey has dictated the pace.

And again, as suggested in this space a week ago, though the Rangers are kind of built to be a go-go team, they’ve been much better off playing methodical hockey that can be kind of difficult on the eyes.

The Devils want to be a crowd-pleasing team — and this one represents the second game for which around 1,800 fans are permitted to attend in New Jersey — but the club’s recent play has barely been sufficient enough to merit even the fake, white noise to which everyone has become accustomed over the last year.

The home team is built to go and hasn’t for weeks. The visiting team was built to go, too, but is going to be more focused on stopping the opposition that included Hughes, who had a total of 12 points (4-8) in 18 games. Alexis Lafreniere, meanwhile, has five points (3-2) in 20 contests.

Playing as a teenager in the NHL seems difficult.

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