With just four games remaining in their season, he New York Rangers stand on the precipice of a New York Mets-like collapse. They hold a two point lead over Florida and the Panthers have one game in hand – which they make up tonight with a home game against the Atlanta Thrashers.

While the Carolina Hurricanes (10-1-2), the Pittsburgh Penguins (13-1-2) and the Montreal Canadiens (4-0-1) have been making their playoff cases, the Blueshirts have been sputtering (9-6-2 under new coach John Tortorella, but just 2-3-1 in their last six).

The Rangers playoff mathematics are simple. Their magic number for making the playoffs is eight for Florida and six for the Buffalo Sabres. Any combination of the above-listed points (one or two for the Rangers and one or less for the Panthers/Sabres) and the Rangers manage to avoid an early summer vacation.

The Broadway Blues find themselves fighting for their playoff lives because of a bad habit of not being able to win games late in the season – which is indicative of their inability to win games late (i.e. heading into the third period). Of the Rangers eight losses (six in regulation and two in extra time) under Torts, the Rangers were tied or leading in six of the eight. It is a situation that the Rangers coach is keenly aware of, especially in light of the loss to the Hurricanes.

“For most of the night I thought we worked hard and did some good things, but when it’s 2-2 in the third period, the little things have to be done, because when they’re not, they cost you the game,” Tortorella told Larry Brooks (NY Post) after the loss to the Hurricanes.

“Mistakes will be made, but at that point you have to make sure that details are taken care of and we didn’t do it . . . we didn’t do it.

“When it’s crunch time in the third period with a playoff spot on the line, you need to get things done and we didn’t.”

To put that into perspective, the Rangers are 35-10-7 when leading or tied going into the third period. That means nearly half of their “blown” leads/ties have happened in the final quarter of the season. The numbers are even more staggering when you look at the Rangers offensive breakdowns.

The Rangers break even during the first two periods of hockey. They are a Minus 1 in the first period (53 goals for and 54 goals against) and a Plus 1 in the second period (69 to 68). However, they are a Minus 15 in the third period (66 to 81). Their 81 third period goals against is topped only by the Colorado Avalanche, New York Islanders and, surprisingly, the Detroit Red Wings. However, Detroit also has scored an NHL-best 101 third period goals.

For all the hullabaloo made when Tortorella replaced Tom Renney, the Rangers have been outscored 20-11 in the third period under their new coach and their anemic power play has mustered a less than stellar 2 goals in 27 chances. Does this mean Tortorella is a bad coach. No, but it means all of the Rangers woes weren’t exactly Renney’s fault either.

The Rangers are what they are – a flawed team that is never quite as good as they are when they are winning games and never quite as bad as they are when they are losing games. The one thing that is for sure is that when the Rangers face adversity within a game, they start to play as if they are in quicksand (full credit to the movie The Replacements).

The more adversity the Rangers face within a game, the more they struggle. The harder they try to fight their way out of it, the worse the struggle gets – much like someone trapped in quicksand. One only needs to look at the game in Atlanta. Once the Thrashers cut the Rangers three-goal lead to two with their last minute second period goal, you knew the Rangers were going to have fight tooth and nail to secure even one point, never mind “stealing” two points in a game they appeared to have well in hand.

The problem is the Rangers have a lack of a killer instinct. They do not have the ability to finish teams off. Much of this stems from their inconsistent and, at times, pop-gun offense – which is furthered hindered by their anemic and inconsistent power play. Ranger fans can yell “Shoot!” all they want, but that is not going to make a difference.

Too often the Rangers employ their NCAA Basketball Tournament offense – “one-and-done”. Far too often the Rangers pad their shot totals with shots from the point or from outside the faceoff dots. The forward do not drive to the net enough and they do not go to the net for screens and rebounds. Even when the Rangers have their forecheck going and are cycling the puck down low, they don’t create enough traffic in front to create enough scoring chances.

The Hurricanes play at the start of the third period helped create their two goals in 28 seconds. Carolina had the Rangers so pinned in their own zone that the Rangers were just content to relieve the pressure – never mind trying to score. Eventually they wore the Blueshirts down and scored a pair of goals keyed by going to the net and causing traffic and confusion in front.

During the remaining four games watch how many passes/rebounds/loose pucks will be at the top of the crease. Then count the number of times the Rangers don’t have a player in position to take advantage. While you are at it, count the number of times you will see a Ranger go past the top of the crease and stand at the side of the crease – and then watch the puck end up at the top of the crease.

Will things change or is it a case of the more things change, the more they stay the same? Such is life in the hockey soap opera we know as the New York Rangers. The final word belongs to Scott Gomez.

“We’re not playing good third periods, and that’s something that we better stop (Saturday against the Bruins in Boston),” Gomez told Michael Obernauer (Daily News). “I don’t know if we’re more hesitant or whatever, but we’ve got to figure it out.”

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