By Sean Hartnett
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The Rangers have put themselves behind the eight-ball lately because of some dreadful first periods.

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This worrying trend continued Tuesday against a shorthanded version of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who were without Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman and Ryan Callahan.

Yet, the Blueshirts were outshot 21-6 in the first and headed into the intermission trailing by two goals. They did eventually win 3-2, but how they played in the opening 20 minutes was troubling.

“Our start was brutal,” alternate captain Marc Staal said. “We were still on the plane from the night before.”

Aside from Monday’s 4-2 victory over Columbus, the Rangers have dragged in the first period for three of their last four games. Their poor starts have be typified by scrambling in their own end, awful puck management and a habit of taking undisciplined penalties.

This cannot continue.

With only two games standing between Wednesday and the start of playoffs next week, the Rangers must get their act together and clean up their slow-starting warts.

The good news is the Rangers tend to become a completely different team once they dig themselves out of early holes. Say what you’d like about the talent level of this group compared to years’ past, but what remains is a collective will to put things right and rally in gut-check moments.

Without captain Ryan McDonagh for at least the remainder of the regular season, the Rangers are minus their indispensable, all-around defenseman who sets the tone with his steady play and calmness. What should be encouraging for fans is the amount of determination and leadership on this roster.

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“We’ve got a lot of guys who’ve been around a long time,” defenseman Keith Yandle told “We’ve got guys who know what it takes to win. There’s no shortage of leadership in here. It’s a fun thing to be a part of. It’s not just one guy every night. Everyone is helping each other, whether it’s good or bad and doing a lot of good things.

“The thing I notice the most is if we’re down, there’s not too much panic in our group,” Yandle continued. “It’s a nice thing to be a part of. We’re down a goal or two, you’ve still got time to come back and give yourself a chance to win. Tonight, we were down two after one. You’ve got 40 minutes to prove yourself. We did a good job of that.”

When things look bleak, this team rallies. The leadership runs deep and alternate captain Derek Stepan is playing like a man possessed of late, lifting the Rangers out of sticky situations with his wholehearted effort and high degree of playmaking skill.

“We responded well,” Stepan said. “I thought we took too many penalties in the first and it caused us to not be able to really get many offensive looks. They had the momentum and they had the ice tilted our way, but, like I said, we responded the right way in the second and third.”

Stepan had Andrei Vasilevskiy’s number on Tuesday, scoring two goals and recording an assist. He has now collected 14 points, including six goals, over the past eight games. Since Feb. 10, Stepan’s 30 points trail only Joe Thornton (32) and Sidney Crosby (31). With 52 points overall, Stepan is the first Rangers center to tally at least 50 in three consecutive seasons since Wayne Gretzky did so during his three seasons as a Ranger between 1996-97 and 1998-99.

After some leans spells, winger Chris Kreider has caught fire to tie his career high of 21 goals. The powerful 24-year-old was a force on the ice Tuesday, registering three shots and three hits. Kreider extended his point streak to four games and has eight over the past six games.

Marc Staal has also raised his game of late. With McDonagh unavailable, head coach Alain Vigneault sees the 29-year-old defenseman rebounding with the playoffs right around the corner.

“Marc’s been playing real well for us for I want to say the last 10 games,” Vigneault said prior to Tuesday’s game. “Defensively, he’s been very solid with his reads and when he doesn’t have the puck. He’s also been very good with the puck — knowing which outlet to use and when to jump up in the attack. He seems to be the Marc Staal that we see in pressure moments. This is the guy we’re seeing at this time, right now. He’s right where we need him to be.”

Between now and the playoffs, there’s definitely a few things for the Rangers to fix, but they’re a team that possesses a ton of character, spirit and determination. That’s something you can’t teach and an essential requirement for any Stanley Cup contender.

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Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey