Rangers Thoughts: One Step Forward, One Step Backward

Last season's inconsistent play has carried over into this season

The Rangers should have won on Tuesday night. They controlled play for the majority of the game and had many opportunities to either take the lead (when it was 1-1 in the second) or tie the game (when it was 4-3 in the third), but they couldn’t get the one goal to change the game. The Rangers answered their season-opening letdown against the Islanders with an impressive win over the Islanders two nights later. After their disappointing loss to the Devils, the Rangers are going to have to get back on track against the Penguins this weekend, and it won’t be easy.

Here are 10 thoughts on the Rangers.

1. I should have known better. I should have known the Rangers wouldn’t follow up their impressive shutout win over the Islanders from Saturday with a strong start on Tuesday against the Devils. The Rangers still aren’t there in terms of starting games the way they should or coupling back-to-back 60-minute games and I need to accept that. I think the reason I haven’t accepted it is because of those 16 wins in 22 games a year ago at this time that made the Rangers appear to have arrived earlier than expected. But sandwiched around that magical run was a rocky, inconsistent first few months to last season and the same kind of play right before the regular season was shut down. That inconsistent effort expected from a rebuilding team showed up again in the postseason in the three-game sweep by Carolina.

2. If you take away the 16 wins in 22 games, the Rangers have been what you would expect a rebuilding team to be since the beginning of last season. Take away those 22 games and you have a 20-23-4 record (including postseason), which is in line with what you would think a team with the Rangers’ youth, inexperience and poor defense would have. Those 22 games might have been a mirage since their only “impressive” win in that span was in the first game of the 22 against Colorado in Igor Shesterkin’s debut. (They did beat the eventual Eastern Conference runner-up Islanders three times during those 22 games, but they’re the Islanders, and the Rangers owned them last season.)

3. That’s not to say the Rangers were bad on Tuesday against the Devils. They controlled play for the majority of the game and outshot their cross-river rival 50-28. But in the minutes the Rangers didn’t control the play or had lapses, the Devils took advantage every time, beginning just 32 seconds into the game on a Travis Zajac goal. That’s now a goal against within the opening minutes of two of three games this season.

4. Mika Zibanejad tied the game with a power-play goal 2:50 into the second, but then Jack Hughes quickly answered with a pair of goals in less than six minutes. After a tough rookie season (21 points in 61 games) as the No. 1 overall selection, Hughes looked like a completely different player at the Garden. He had an assist to go with his two goals, was involved in nearly every play and all over the ice. He was Matthew Barzal-like with the puck in the offensive zone and he’s quickly becoming a player who you can’t wait for his shift to end. I was hoping Hughes turned into a bust for the sake of rooting for the Rangers, but unfortunately, that’s not going to be the case. He already has six points in three games this season or 29 percent of his point total from last season.

5. The No. 1 pick this year, Alexis Lafrenière is still looking for his first NHL point, but he has looked good, when he has been allowed to look good. And by allowed, I mean when he’s on the ice with high-caliber players he should be on the ice with. That means Artemi Panarin and/or Mika Zibanejad. Lafrenière should be getting Top 6 minutes every single game to go along with PP1 minutes. That means removing Ryan Strome from PP1.

6. Strome doesn’t belong on the first unit. He doesn’t belong in the team’s Top 6. His career year last season was made possible by playing a full season with Panarin. Micheal Haley could have scored 40 points being on the ice with Panarin as often as Strome was. The power-play units don’t need balance and there’s no need to stash Lafrenière or even Kaapo Kakko on the second unit, so Strome can continue to turn over the puck or look completley out of place talent-wise with the rest of the first.

7. It’s going to be very, very bad if Zibanejad is injured and forced to miss time after losing an edge and sliding into the boards in the third period on Tuesday. He’s either the most important or second-most important player on the Rangers (to me, he’s the second-most important), and they can’t afford to navigate this shortened season against the competition of the East without him. Here’s to seeing him back in the lineup on Friday in Pittsburgh.

8. Unfortunately, David Quinn’s never-ending line shuffling coupled with his not wanting to put Panarin and Zibanejad togther unless the team desperately needs a goal in the final minutes of the third period continues. Maybe if the two were playing together for an entire game, the team wouldn’t be trailing in the third period. In the brief time the two were on the ice together at even strength in the third period against the Devils, the puck didn’t leave New Jersey’s zone. The Rangers could have that kind of offense for an entire game if Quinn would recognize what he has and what he’s wasting.

9. As we saw from the Devils (even though the Rangers outplayed them), there won’t be any nights or games off in this division. The Devils and Sabres were expected to be the two worst teams in the East, and they haven’t looked like it after a week. Both teams are much improved and both teams are going to be a problem all season. There isn’t an easy part of the schedule this season and the four straight games against the Devils later in the season is going to be the equivalent of playoff series.

10. The magic number is 1.2 points per game. That’s the number I will continue to write and talk about all season because if you want the Rangers to reach the postseason, that’s the number it’s going to take to get there (or something just below that number). Through three games, the Rangers are 2.6 points under pace, more than a full win and loser point under where they need to be. The Flyers, Capitals, Devils and Islanders have been able to hold that pace through the first week of the season and they currently hold the four East postseason spots. Sure, we’re only five percent of the way into the Rangers’ season and a big weekend in Pittsburgh could get them right back on track, but needing a big weekend in Pittsburgh with the way the Penguins just played in two games against the Capitals isn’t something that should be counted on.

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