By Sean Hartnett
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From top to bottom, the 1-3-0 Rangers haven’t been up to snuff through four games. It’s hard to be a winning hockey club when so few players are performing close to their A-game. As a team, the Rangers have yet to put together a solid 60 minutes and have been plagued by sleepwalking starts.
In Tuesday’s 3-1 home loss to the undefeated St. Louis Blues, the Rangers played flat, discombobulated hockey for the majority of the first 40 minutes. By the time they finally were engaged and supporting each other in third period, it was too late.
It’s clear the Rangers need to simplify their execution and must get back to their identity, which is a speed game and playing together in units of five.
“You saw tonight when we started to play the right way how fast we look,” defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. “And I think we need to realize that’s how we use our team speed – close puck support and going from there. I think we need to focus early on — on making simple plays, getting pucks in their zone, grinding away a little bit. I think we’re trying to make it look like an All-Star Game out there too early on when we haven’t established our identity, which is putting pucks in and going to work. We’re good when we just play fast all over the ice, and we seem to try to make it too complicated early on.”
Look up and down the Rangers’ bench. There aren’t many individuals who are meeting expectations, aside from the always-effective and industrious Mats Zuccarello and the point-producing line of Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich. Zibanejad extended his goal-scoring streak to a career-high four games by notching a first-period power-play goal. The 24-year-old Swede has tallied five goals through four games.
“Mika’s line is generating quite a few chances – in the third anyway – and after the initial power play, they were a little ordinary,” head coach Alain Vigneault said. “The other two lines right now, we are looking for a little bit more chemistry to create a little bit more. We’re going to work on that tomorrow.”
Vigneault’s defensive pairs look like a work in progress. The top four were expected to consist of Shattenkirk, captain Ryan McDonagh, Brady Skjei and Brendan Smith. On Tuesday, the pairings were Marc Staal and McDonagh on the first pair, and Skjei and Shattenkirk on the second. Nick Holden and Steven Kampfer formed a makeshift third pairing.
Smith has been a healthy scratch for consecutive games following a turnover-prone performance against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday. While it’s understandable why Vigneault wanted to give Holden and Kampfer a look after they were each held out for the first two games, experimentation time needs to end now.
The Rangers re-signed Smith to a four-year, $17 million contract with the intention of having him devour top-four minutes and being able to move the puck quickly out of the defensive end. While I have no doubts about Smith’s ability or Vigneault’s willingness to lean on him heavily as the season goes on, it’s clear the Rangers need to figure out how to summon the 28-year-old’s best play.
“This game is always based on performance and who’s playing well,” Vigneault said when asked about the defensive pairings. “That’s what we’re trying right now – get our whole team and whole crew to elevate their game. Obviously, our record isn’t good enough right now. Everyone’s aware of that. So we’ve got to focus on our next game.”
CRACKNELL MAKES DEBUT
Newly acquired winger Adam Cracknell skated on the fourth line alongside Paul Carey and David Desharnais. Cracknell only logged 8:01 TOI, but he made his mark with two shots on goal and led all skaters with six hits.
“I didn’t play him much,” Vigneault said. “I think in the first two periods, he had seven minutes. In the third, I very quickly shut down to three lines.”
Cracknell was claimed off waivers from the Dallas Stars on Monday. The 32-year-old recorded 10 goals and six assists in 69 games for Dallas last season.
RANGERS SEND ROOKIE CHYTIL TO HARTFORD
After impressing throughout the preseason, the Rangers opted to send rookie center Filip Chytil to the AHL’s Hartford Wolf Pack on Tuesday. The 18-year-old skated for two games and became the fourth-youngest player to appear for the Rangers.
“He hadn’t played much the last couple games and didn’t play the last game,” Vigneault said. “When talking with (general manager) Jeff (Gorton) yesterday, we felt he needed to play. Like we had mentioned before, it’s a day-to-day situation here. The best thing for him right now is to go and play a couple games in Hartford on the weekend.”
Chytil appeared in 38 games for HC Zlin of the Czech Extraliga last season. Given the youngster’s lack of North American experience, it’s understandable why the Rangers felt his development is best served in Hartford. But it should be noted that Chytil could find his way back to New York quickly depending on his play and how the Rangers perform at center without him.
“Yes,” Vigneault said when asked if Chytil could return. “We haven’t quite made up our mind on him and the makeup of our team. So, we’re looking at both at this time. We feel that right now he needs to play. He can play in Hartford, and we need to sort out a couple things here also.”
The Rangers currently have five centers on their roster: Zibanejad, Kevin Hayes, J.T. Miller, Desharnais and Carey. Miller shifted to the middle after spending the first three games of the season on the wing. Given the way Miller has improved defensively and on faceoffs (61 percent so far this season), he’s equally capable of performing at center or on the wing – and his flexibility will come in handy should Chytil make a quick return to the NHL.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey