By Sean Hartnett
» More Columns
Through 13 games, the Rangers are very much an incomplete puzzle that’s missing a few key pieces. Though the Blueshirts stormed back to defeat the expansion Vegas Golden Knights 6-4 on Halloween night, it was a victory that felt very much like papering over the same cracks that have appeared throughout a rocky 4-7-2 start.
This team has rarely put together complete 60-minute efforts and was outworked and outexecuted throughout much of the night. Franchise goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was subjected to a sloppy, turnover-prone, defensively deficient pair of first and second periods. Vegas’ forwards competed harder for loose pucks and the Rangers’ blueliners – particularly captain Ryan McDonagh — showed a tendency to lose their assignments. While Lundqvist hasn’t been on his A-game for much of the season, he isn’t deserving of the lion’s share of the blame, given how the men in front of him are coughing up the puck with frequency and failing to protect the fort.
After exiting for the second intermission down 4-2 and hearing boos from the Garden crowd, the Rangers responded, albeit against a Vegas team that committed its own set of blunders in the final frame. You’re not always going to be gifted a four-minute, double-minor tripping penalty, and you’re not always going to face an inexperienced fourth-string goaltender who entered the contest with 26 NHL minutes to his name.
The Rangers are realistic about the need to stamp out their deficiencies. This isn’t a team that believes victories are more important than progress toward getting its act together.
“Everyone in here knows that it’s not perfect yet,” defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk told WFAN.com. “We still need to get everyone coming on board and get a full-team effort. It’s something that we’re working towards, obviously. I think everyone in here realizes that we haven’t played our best hockey yet. Wins like this show our will and our work ethic, but we still have a lot of things we need to do as a team to improve.
“I think what really needs to come out of this locker room and on to the ice is just a little more of putting together a 60-minute game,” he continued. “Not necessarily going wire-to-wire with the lead, but making sure that we’re playing the way we did in the third from the first period to the end. We can’t keep spotting teams these goals because, as we know so far, it doesn’t always work out like tonight.”
No team wants to bank on come-from-behind victories. It’s not a sustainable winning formula – even if you have a world-class netminder like Lundqvist who has dragged mediocre Rangers teams to 100-point seasons and posted an above .920 save percentage in seven of the past eight seasons.
“It’s just one game,” winger Mats Zuccarello said. “We still have a lot to fix. At the end of the day, we’re not going to be able to score six goals in a game to win a hockey game. We’ve got to be able to win 2-1, or 1-0, or whatever. So we’ve got to clean up our defensive act.”
Gaze up and down the Rangers’ bench. It’s difficult to pick out individuals who are playing to or above expectations. Pavel Buchnevich, who is performing like a top-six forward, is providing energetic forechecking and very much looks like a star in the making. Actually, he’s the closest this franchise has had to a singular offensive force since Rick Nash’s 42-goal season in 2014-15. Buchnevich finally got his reward as head coach Alain Vigneault reunited him with Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad on the first line after the highly skilled 22-year-old has spent much of the season relegated to fourth-line minutes.
Aside from Buchnevich’s 10 points in the first 13 games, bottom-six center David Desharnais has provided surprising offense and has been dominant at the faceoff circle, winning 62.7 percent of draws.
“Nobody in here wants to lose hockey games,” Zuccarello said. “Everyone in here knows that we have to prepare better. Every individual has to play better. No one has been up to their standards, and we all know that. Sometimes, it’s a win like this that can maybe get us out of it. We have a lot to fix.”
The Rangers face an uphill climb in a Metropolitan Division that hasn’t been as formidable many expected. A young, lightning-fast Devils team has stunned many by leading the way with 16 points through 10 games played. The back-to-back defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins have started a respectable 7-5-1, but their minus-14 goal differential is tied for third worst in the league. Last season’s Presidents’ Trophy winners, the Washington Capitals, are sub-.500 at 5-6-1.
In short, there’s a lot of talent on the Rangers. It hasn’t meshed well, and part of that is down to Vigneault’s deployments. But most of the problem has do with individuals who are playing far below their usual levels. The team has looked itself in the mirror and knows it’s capable of being a lot better in the 69 games to come.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey