By Sean Hartnett
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The calendar reads Oct. 13 and only four games have been played, but the 1-3 Rangers are already in a show-me situation.
These Blueshirts look nothing like Metropolitan Division contenders, given their inability to shake sleepwalking starts, habitual turnovers, and a lack of sustained offensive zone time.
“I think in past years we were just simple,” alternate captain Rick Nash said. “You look at the plays we try to make early on, they are kind of complicated plays and we end up turning over the puck. I think if we can all get on the same page and play north-south early on, just chip it in and get that forecheck going, we won’t have so many turnovers at our blue line.”
Currently, the Rangers sit in last place in the Metro. Friday’s game on the road against the Columbus Blue Jackets is the perfect opportunity to get their season on track. If they can secure a confidence-building victory in a tough building, things could quickly turn around.
The Jackets have the speed and skill to really test a Rangers blue line that has been an unconvincing work in progress. Head coach Alain Vigneault has mixed and matched his defensive pairs, but has yet to get the desired result. On Thursday, the Rangers ran the following pairs at practice: Ryan McDonagh-Nick Holden, Marc Staal-Kevin Shattenkirk and Brady Skjei-Brendan Smith.
Columbus rookie winger Sonny Milano, who hails from Massapequa, has collected four goals in three games. The arrival of Artemi Panarin and his off-the-charts skills should be a major boost to the Blue Jackets’ chances of putting together another 100-plus point season. Panarin and captain Nick Foligno each have registered three points in the early going.
Cam Atkinson’s nose for getting into goal-scoring areas and boundless energy make him very difficult to contain. Zach Werenski and Seth Jones are two of the best young defensemen in the sport. Sergei Bobrovsky is the reigning Vezina Trophy winner and has started the season with an insane .985 save percentage and ridiculous 0.48 goals-against average.
Milano, Werenski, and winger Oliver Bjorkstrand are just a few of the Jackets’ impressive young talents. Columbus also has high hopes for 19-year-old center Pierre-Luc Dubois, who was the third overall pick in the 2016 draft.
The Rangers need more scorers to get in on the action in order for the even-strength offense to improve. Mika Zibanejad has five goals, including four on the power play. Shattenkirk, Skjei, Staal, Mats Zuccarello and J.T. Miller are tied for second with just one goal. The Rangers’ power play has gotten off to an excellent start, clicking at 31.3 percent — good for fourth in the league.
Shattenkirk has posted strong numbers against Columbus throughout his career, totaling 17 points in 24 regular season games. Michael Grabner has 12 points in 14 games.
The Rangers’ next two games are against in-division rivals that will pose interesting tests. Both the Blue Jackets and the Devils, Saturday’s opponent, have excelled this season due to their talented youth and outstanding team speed. New Jersey rookies Jesper Bratt and Will Butcher have tallied six and five points, respectively, through three games.
The Devils have been one of the league’s surprise teams, beginning the season 3-0. Their power play has converted 30.8 percent of the time. Though they have allowed a whopping 38.7 shots per game, veteran goaltender Cory Schneider has been excellent under duress, positing a .948 save percentage and a 2.00 GAA.
Make no mistake, this weekend should reveal if the Rangers have what it takes to get back to playing north-south hockey.
If they do that, they’ll right the ship.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey