What is Wrong With the Rangers? After the first nine games of the season the supposed “Cup Contenders” are looking at a 4-5 overall record. Making it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals last year was believed to be a launching pad for this team to take off and compete as one of the top teams in the entire NHL. The Rangers lacked offensive punch down the stretch run, ultimately becoming their downfall during the Stanley Cup Playoffs of 2012. They went out and addressed this void with the acquisition of stud forward Rick Nash in a blockbuster deal with the Blue Jackets during the off-season. So what exactly is it that is plaguing this Rangers team, leaving fans scratching their heads with the slow start to the season?
Last season, the New York Rangers got off to a 4-4-1 start in their first nine games before going on a great run which ultimately landed them atop the Eastern Conference by season’s end. Through the first nine games this year, a 4-5 record is ultimately identical (shoot-out loss differential) with one glaring difference. This is only a 48 game season, a “Sprint to the Cup”, remember? Hence the reason why many Rangers fans across the nation have their hands hovering over the panic button.
Fear not Rangers fans, it really is – STILL EARLY. Whether it is an 82 game season or a 48 game season, it is still early enough that this team can right the ship, and go on a nice little run here to get back into contention. If they are going to do this however, they need to clean up a few areas in their game that have been hindering early success thus far. The key points that I see that need to be addressed and fixed if they stand any chance at getting things back on track are as follows:
Giving up the Early Goal-
Game in and game out so far I feel as though the Rangers have been giving up an early goal to put them behind the 8-ball right from the get-go. Not all of this lands on Henrik’s shoulders – It almost seems as though the team is not ready to go when the puck is dropped. This needs to change, there needs to be a sense of urgency to dictate the pace and the flow of the game. Something we have seen very little of so far this season.
Stay out of the Penalty Box-
This plays hand in hand with giving up the early goal. Too many times this season the Rangers seem to be shorthanded only 5 minutes into regulation play. This goes along with not being ready mentally, and just being outworked in the short moments at the start of games. The New York Rangers lead the NHL with 4 too many men on the ice penalty, solidifying the point that they are not mentally engaged enough in all aspects of the game. With the losses of Brandon Prust (Mtl), Brandon Dubinsky (Clmbs), Artem Anisimov (Clmbs), and Ruslan Fedotenko (Phi) – the New York Rangers have seen their penalty-killing unit fall to 22nd in the league (last year they were 5th). The addition of Daroll Powe from Minnestoa should help, but the overall team effort needs to improve if they want to stay in games.
Last night’s game against the New Jersey Devils pretty much sums up the Rangers Power-play so far this season- they went 0-5 with only 3 shots on goal. Plain and simple, this is unacceptable. When you have players like Rick Nash, Marian Gaborik, and Brad Richards – 3 shots on net in 10 minutes of power-play time is, to be blunt – Pathetic. The entry into the offensive zone has been a huge issue, they seem to be unable to establish themselves making it tough to set up. Once they do get set up, they are way too stagnant with no movement whatsoever, making it easy on the opposing teams to defend. They should take notes from the Devils 3rd goal last night (which came on the PP) when they got the puck, put it right on net, and slammed home the rebound- No nonsense.
The Devils keep Kovalchuck on their power-play unit for the full 2 minutes because he is a goal scorer, that is what they pay him to do, and he often times comes through. The team needs to apply a sense of urgency in their game, and integrate that into their power-play unit. Going 3-35, with an 8% efficiency to start the season is going to continue losing games for this team if it doesn’t get fixed, fast.
Getting Caught Out of Position
The Rangers had one of the best defensive units anchored by a Vezina Award winning goaltender behind them last year. This year way to many times this same unit has been caught turning the puck over, and out of position. From day one as a defenseman you are taught to always establish defensive-side position on a forward out in front. This basic logic is something that has been lost upon this Rangers team throughout the early goings. This goal here by Mikhail Grabovski illustrates this point perfectly:
Along with this there have been way too many turnovers leading to great scoring opportunities for the other team in the D-zone. This unit has the ability to shut teams down on a nightly basis, all they need to do is get back to the basics, stop running around, and tighten things up in their own zone. The absence of Girardi hurt in last night’s game hopefully he gets back soon, and helps firm up the defensive-corps.
Overall Team Depth-
Coach John Tortorella’s decision to load up on the top line with Gaborik, Richards, and Nash has left a lot of pressure, and exposed a lot of holes on the Rangers bottom 3 lines. Especially now that Captain Ryan Callahan is out with a shoulder injury (should be back for the Tampa Bay game), there is a serious drop off in-depth once you get passed the first line. In Callahan’s absence, and in general overall, guys like Stepan and Hagelin need to pick up their play. They seemed to be getting back on track after the game against the Lightning on February 2nd, but that did not carry over against the Devils at all.
The best looking line was by far that of Christ Kreider, JT Miller, and Darroll Powe (Richards was also bumped onto this line in the 3rd period when they scored their only goal). If the Rangers are going to rely solely on Kreider and Miller to score a bulk of their goals, they are in BIG trouble. The fate of this team is going to come down to whether or not the second line can contribute offensively to take some of the burden off of the first. Either that, or Torts has to seriously consider breaking that first line up to evenly distribute the scoring throughout the entire lineup.
Finding Their Identity-
One thing that made the Rangers so special last year was their identity. Teams knew that the New York Rangers were going to give them a 100% effort, no-nonsense style of hockey every single night. This is something that this team has gotten away from through the first couple of games this season. It is very uncharacteristic of this group, a John Tortorella coached team, to be outworked. As unusual as that may be, that most certainly is the case.
The first couple of games, okay we can use the lockout as the excuse to find their skating legs. Too many times in the last couple of match-ups though, they are getting beat to the puck, not getting out to block the shot, and just not putting the extra grit into the game that Rangers fans have become accustomed to. If Torts can tap into that same fire that fueled this team last year, and get them playing the way we all know they can – their game will get back on track.
Are the Rangers struggling to find their game right now? Of course, but does that mean it’s time to hit the panic button and start firing every coach/trading every player on the team via social media/blogs? NO. There are still 39 games left in this season to go on a run and get back to their winning ways. It is no question that teams want to have their “A” game all season long, but hockey is a tricky game to try to figure out. For example, an 8 seed won the Stanley Cup last season, top seeds certainly don’t carry the same weight terms of advantage as it does in other sports, aside from playoff seeding (granted you don’t want a bad match-up in the first round). In a game where teams can go on a run at anytime, and a hot goalie can mean the difference between a first-round exit and a cup final; It is hard to start pushing the panic button this early into any season, no matter what the length of schedule is. So fans, let the Rangers play through these growing pains, and they will be back into contention come April.
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