On Tuesday night, the Rangers lost their third of four games to start the season, with a 2-1 loss to the St. Louis Blues. The game displayed yet another sluggish start for the Rangers, as they surrendered two goals in the first period. One of those goals came just 15 seconds into the game by Blues defenseman Carl Gunnarsson.
Also on Tuesday night, though, Mika Zibanejad scored his fifth goal of the season. He is only the second player in Rangers history to score at least one goal in the team’s first four games. Rick Nash did it to start the 2014-15 season and scored 42 goals that year.
As good as Zibanejad has been for the Rangers, their poor first periods have them playing catch up and are threatening to put them in an early hole in the standings.
Bad First Periods
On the opening goal against the Blues, the Rangers sloppily turned the puck over in their zone and stood around as Gunnarsson, a defenseman, crept into the slot. No one on the Rangers picked him up and Gunnarsson, all alone in front, fired a shot to give the Blues a quick lead. It was a failure on so many levels by the Rangers.
Nine of the Rangers’ 15 goals allowed have occurred in the opening period. Against the Montreal Canadiens, the lone game this season where they did not allow a first-period goal, the Rangers looked slow and were fortunate that the Habs scored two disallowed goals.
The Rangers have allowed an early goal in all 3 losses (5:29 of 1st vs. COL, 2:30 of 1st vs. TOR, 15 seconds of 1st vs. STL). Not pretty.
— Dan Rosen (@drosennhl) October 11, 2017
To break it down further, the Rangers have allowed four goals in the opening six minutes of play. Whatever pre-game preparations they are doing are not working. The opening stretch of games has been marred by plays such as the aforementioned Gunnarsson goal or this eerily similar goal by the Toronto Maple Leafs last Saturday night.
Earlier this week, I mentioned the Leafs goal as an example of their poor play and it is worth discussing again because it’s a mistake they keep repeating with a sloppy pass or easy turnover combined with awful defensive zone awareness. Against the Leafs, the Rangers turned the puck over in the neutral zone and the Leafs quickly countered with a glorious scoring opportunity by Zach Hyman. He easily glided through two Rangers defensemen but was denied by Henrik Lundqvist. However, the Rangers immediately coughed up the puck again and Hyman made no mistakes on his second go around and beat Lundqvist with a sweet move.
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Then there’s this goal from the Rangers’ opening night tilt against the Colorado Avalanche. Again, in the early stages of the first period, the Rangers are sloppy with the puck. A poke-check in the neutral zone leads to a quick counter attack by the Avs. The puck is skated into the zone, where Nail Yakupov finds trailing defenseman Patrik Nemeth, who is not picked up by anyone in blue. He is able to get a clear shot in front of the net which Lundqvist saves. But the rebound is buried by Matt Duchene, who is also not picked up in front of the net. Again, it boils down to a lot of defensive confusion and poor awareness and very little help for Lundqvist, who can only do so much in situations like these.
The Rangers need to be smarter on the puck and pick up guys in the defensive zone. They need to go back to the basics and keep it simple. It is still early and these are manageable fixes but the team needs to start getting results.
Zibanejad’s Hot Start
The bright start for Zibanejad does not seem as bright with the Rangers losing three of four. But he has been very good for the Blueshirts in the early going. The Rangers have 10 goals scored this season with Zibanejad accounting for half of them. He has also boosted the power play with four goals. Nobody else in the NHL has more than two power play goals.
? Mika is now the second #NYR in franchise history to score a goal in each of first four games of a season! ?
— New York Rangers (@NYRangers) October 10, 2017
Then there are his face-off numbers which are also an important factor in his hot start. He is tied for 10th in the league in face-offs per game with 21.5 and wins 57% of them. Of those players in the top ten, only Minnesota Wild’s Mikko Koivu (61.2%) and Nashville Predator’s Ryan Johansen (63.8%) have a better winning percentage. Winning face-offs is key to maintaining puck control and maintaining control is vital for the Rangers right now as they are dealing with defensive hiccups.
Furthering his face-off prowess are his numbers in the circle on the power play. On the power play, he averages six face-offs per game, which is third most in the league and he’s won 58.3%. These wins have directly translated into goals for the Rangers.
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Mika Zibanejad’s early emergence as a top-line center has been practically the only reason to feel encouraged watching the Rangers. They have been listless for large stretches of games and have conceded a bunch of sloppy goals. Lundqvist has not been as sharp as one would hope, but he has not been the issue on many of those goals either. It is a long season so there is time for them to rebound, but these are issues that cannot – and should not – linger much longer.