‘Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
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The Rangers have begun their 2013-14 campaign under new head coach Alain Vigneault in dreadful fashion. If Tuesday’s 9-2 defeat to the San Jose Sharks can be considered an embarrassment, Thursday’s 6-0 blanking at the hands of the Anaheim Ducks was absolutely cringe-worthy.
From the point that alternate captain Brad Richards scored the opening goal on Tuesday in San Jose, the Rangers have been since outscored by opponents, 15-1. Through four games, the Rangers have only managed to light the lamp five times this season, while averaging a whopping five goals against per game.
World-class goaltender Henrik Lundqvist has been humbled in net, sporting an unsightly 4.30 goals against average. The former Vezina Trophy winner has allowed a jaw-dropping 15 goals in four games — and that’s the least of the Rangers’ problems.
The most glaring issue is the Rangers’ defensive coverage (or lack thereof.) This was a constant theme throughout Tuesday’s ignominious defeat at Honda Center. It’s almost as if Lundqvist is trying too hard to cover up the Rangers’ defensive warts.
This was clear when the 31-year-old Swedish netminder came charging out of his crease wildly on the Ducks’ fourth goal of the night. Fellow Swede Jakob Silfverberg capitalized when Lundqvist strayed far out of his net to attempt a diving poke check.
Rangers winger Benoit Pouliot lazily dished an inaccurate pass to Michael Del Zotto, who then collided with Pouliot — causing Lundqvist to abandon his net while his teammates collectively had their heads up their backsides. The moment was pretty much a microcosm of the Blueshirts’ woeful young season.
While some Rangers fans have become accustomed to seeing the inconsistent Del Zotto having difficult nights, it’s understandable why their level of concern is heightened when usually rock-steady blue-liner Ryan McDonagh appeared lost for an entire 60-minute game.
Rangers defensemen as a whole failed to protect the low-slot in front of Lundqvist, and struggled to recognize the presence of the Ducks’ most fearsome scorers. The Ducks were able to execute simple tic-tac-toe passes, finding accommodating patches of ice behind mindless Rangers blue-liners.
The Rangers also had issues controlling the puck. Especially during the first period, when the Blueshirts were outshot by the Ducks,17-3. In their past two games, the Rangers have been outshot by opponents a startling 84-54.
It won’t get any easier for the Rangers on Saturday night when they enter the lion’s den that is Scottrade Center to tangle with the undefeated St. Louis Blues team that is coming off an inspirational victory over the defending Stanley Cup-champion Chicago Blackhawks.
The Blues have been every bit the dominant team many expected them to be out of the gates. Through three games, they have outscored opponents, 14-4.
VIGNEAULT IS ‘REPROGRAMMING’ THE RANGERS AND DESERVES PATIENCE
Let’s be clear. What the Rangers are going through isn’t an effort issue. They’re struggling to understand Vigneault’s concept of uptempo hockey that also requires sound positioning.
He allows defensemen to jump up into the rush. This sometimes allows areas of the ice to be exposed for odd-man rushes. That’s what were seeing now. The Rangers aren’t up to speed in learning Vigneault’s system and are committing costly defensive breakdowns.
The Rangers are going to need to focus on getting their passing up to the level that Vigneault requires. Until they do, you will continue to see the turnovers pile up.
Previous head coach John Tortorella’s system emphasized full-blooded, gritty efforts night after night. While his style proved to be effective and frustrating for opponents, it did not allow star players to display their natural creativity.
Vigneault is essentially reprogramming the brains of the Rangers after Tortorella removed creative thought from his troops. When Glen Sather made the choice to dismiss a successful coach in Tortorella, he made the sensible choice of hiring a coach in Vigneault who had a track record of getting the most out of both star players and youthful talents.
The former Canucks’ bench boss was brought in to change the robotic culture under Tortorella and push the Rangers into becoming a team that is capable of breaking free of the one-dimensional, defense-first stereotype they became under Torts. It’s a process that is going to require players to greatly adapt their games.
Fans might be panicking now, but the Rangers needed to evolve in order to have a legitimate chance of one day realizing their Stanley Cup ambitions. Tortorella came pretty darn close to guiding the Rangers to their first Stanley Cup Finals since 1994, but once the Rangers come to grips with Vigneault’s concept, they’ll be an explosive team that no one wants to face.
NASH SENT HOME, RETURN DATE UNCERTAIN
Winger Rick Nash was sent home by the Rangers before their blowout loss to the Ducks. Nash flew back to New York and will miss Saturday’s matchup with the St. Louis Blues at Scottrade Center. His return date is unclear, as there is no timetable for his return.
The 29-year-old star winger sustained a “head injury” during the first period of Tuesday’s game in San Jose when defenseman Brad Stuart extended his body to deliver a blow to Nash’s head. He took seven more shifts after the incident and did not return for the final two periods on Tuesday’s 9-2 defeat. Stuart was handed a three-game suspension by the NHL on Wednesday for what the league deemed to be an “illegal check to the head.”
Nash admitted that his symptoms immediately worsened when he spoke to reporters following Tuesday’s loss in San Jose.
“I have a headache,” Nash said. “It got worse. It was a headshot. I’m concerned the way it feels. You’re concerned anytime there’s a headshot.”
Nash sustained a concussion on February 12, 2013, when Boston Bruins winger Milan Lucic smashed Nash’s face against the glass along the end boards at TD Garden. While the injury did not cause Nash to miss the Rangers’ next two games, he went on to miss a string of four consecutive games in February due to post-concussion syndrome before returning to action on February 28, 2013.
While the former 40-goal scorer is key to what Vigneault wants to accomplish in New York, there are a number of Rangers who must rise to the challenge while Nash is out of the lineup.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.
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