The Rangers have hit a rough patch, a part of most seasons unless you happen to be the Blackhawks. Having lost 4 of the last 5 with the only win coming in a close game against the lowly Hurricanes, this stretch is either a manifestation of bigger issues or bad bounces of the puck. After all you can’t win 82 games. There are reasons to believe that the Rangers should be concerned from this stretch and also reasons to just see it as an inevitable part of a long season. Lets examine both sides of the argument:
Reasons not to worry:
First and foremost, the standings. Even coming out of this rough patch the Rangers remain in first place in the Metropolitan division. They already have a staggering 11 point margin between themselves and the Devils, who sit in the spot outside the playoffs. This team would be hard pressed to miss the playoffs and based on the last few season their goals go beyond regular season point totals.
Goaltending as usual is the Rangers fail safe and will keep fans warm at night after losses. With Lundqvist doing what he has done for the last decade and the team continuing to be a back up goalie factory, this time with Antti Raanta, they are first in the league in goals against per game.
As far as the competition, it is never too early too look out at what is happening across the league. The Rangers peers in the top tier aren’t quite as intimidating in the early stretch. Carey Price is out for an extended period, likely slowing down the conference’s top team. The other three teams in last years final four, the Ducks, Lightning and Blackhawks have all gotten off to slow starts. The major remaining threat in the eastern conference is the Washington Capitals and after the last few playoff runs it is tough for anyone in Rangerstown to lose sleep over them.
Past performance can be an indicator and give solace to ailing fans. This team has been known to hit slow stretches at least once a season and bounce back admirably. In previous years the short-term struggles have not deterred from deep playoff runs. But then again, this team has also never finished the season with a win. That brings us to the other side of the coin.
Reasons to worry:
The earliest signs of trouble came from comments that coach Alain Vigneault made early in the season, refusing to overpraise the team despite their winning ways. Now that some losses have piled up his rhetoric about having to finish games and play three hard periods has only increased.
His observations are concerning due in large part to streaky play. In last night’s loss to the Islanders the team opened the game with nine of the first 11 shots but still were out shot 37 to 34 in the game. It seems that unlike the blueshirts colleagues with rings, they fail to dominate or overpower teams on a regular basis.
Along with “Potvin Sucks” and “Let’s Go Rangers” another common chant in Madison Square Garden is “SHOOT!” The teams lack of pucks on net is another cause for strife. It is impossible to score without shooting and the blueshirts rank 26th in that stat on a per game basis. All too often players send no look passes and drop offs in lieu of making a goalie do his job. Rangers fans surely can remember a couple of good looks from the slot that are passed up every game, often on the power play. Along this skid the Rangers have been out shot seven of the last eight games.
Goaltending provides an argument for both a reason not to worry and a cause for concern because as great as it is to have the best goalie in the league it can also become a crutch. The Rangers sit first in the league in goals against average and with no signs of that slowing down a skid in the standings could easily be tracead to the offensive end. One has to wonder if knowing you have Lundqvist between the pipes can reduce the sense of urgency to increase single goal leads.
Finishing the job has been a hallmark of Rangers success as of late with a strong reputation in the third over the past few seasons. Over the last five games they have been outscored 8-1 in the final period and were unable to score in the final period and overtime before losing to the Islanders in a shootout. Granted this is a small sample size but the problem was mentioned as far back as the Panthers game two weeks ago when Lundqvist lamented to reporters about the need to finish off games when they narrowly escaped two final minute goals against Florida to win in overtime.
Finally, the elephant in the room as the Rangers dropped a rivalry game last night was that Derek Stepan will be out 4 to 6 weeks after a hit that was somehow deemed not worthy of suspension by the league. Though it is out of the teams hands and an unavoidable occupational hazard, losing one of their most important forwards will surely hurt the offense as well as causing strain on the line combinations.
The Rangers will have a chance to right the ship tonight when they take on the Avalanche before a welcomed two night break.