By Sean Hartnett
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It’s understandable why Rangers fans are hitting the panic button after a 1-5-2 start. This team has made habits of getting off to horrendous starts and surrendering early goals. That didn’t change Thursday against the rival Islanders, as Chris Kreider’s hooking penalty at 1:30 of the first period led to an Anders Lee power play goal.
Too often this season, the Rangers have repeated the same script by immediately putting themselves behind the eight ball. They have started games out of sync and been turnover prone and flatfooted. It happened again Thursday, but an energized third period could be the catalyst to kick-start a season that has begun in gloomy fashion.
Although the Blueshirts went on to lose 4-3 in a shootout, I’m getting the impression that this team flipped the switch in the right direction in the third period and truly understood the level of commitment and effort it’s going to take to change fortunes for the better. The team that showed up for the final frame and overtime was the real Rangers. All their mistakes are correctable through sheer effort and attention to detail. It’s up to the 23 men in the Rangers’ dressing room to take the blueprint that was unearthed in the third period and follow it to a tee.
“Well, I thought in the second and the third — we gave up that early goal and you’re down by two against a strong team like the Islanders — we buckled down,” head coach Alain Vigneault said. “Our guys worked extremely hard. And maybe our execution might not be perfect, but the work ethic in that room and the commitment to try and play the right way is there. I’m a firm believer that if you prepare and work hard, things are going to fall into place. We battled back again tonight. It’s not the first time we’ve done that this year. We only got one point, but we battled hard.”
This team is fully capable of taking everything they’ve done wrong through eight games, burying it and moving on in the right direction. This may not be the popular opinion for a fan base that is demanding accountability from its team, some supporters even harboring resentment toward Vigneault. From the coaching staff to the core players, all the way down to the fringe fourth liner grinder, everyone aboard this ship must take a slice of the blame and use it as fuel to get this season on track.
As convenient as it is for fans to point the blame at Vigneault, he has been let down by a group that has often handled the puck like a grenade, at times has stopped skating and at other times has looked as sloppy and disorganized as the Three Stooges trying to fit through the same door.
“It’s a combination of us obviously playing better with the puck, like we’ve mentioned a few times, and we’re going to continue,” Vigneault said. “Obviously, it’s challenging mentally, but our guys, I look at how they’re getting ready and the attention to detail that they’re trying to do on the ice and how they battled back again tonight. … I can only be supportive and our whole coaching staff is the same way, and our players have got to stick with it. If they stick with it, the results are going to come.
“The only way to get those bounces is to continue to play the right way and continue to work hard,” he added. “That’s what we’re doing right now, and you saw the third period – we spent close to 10 minutes in the Islanders’ end, so we’ve got to bottle that up and get ready for the next game and bring that against Nashville.”
Poor luck has also played a part. There have been spells and whole periods such as the third period Thursday night when the Rangers have totally dominated offensive zone time and had the misfortune of shots hitting iron and puck luck betraying them.
If there’s one player who is emblematic of the awful luck this team has occasionally run into, it’s snakebitten winger Rick Nash. Through eight games, the former 42-goal scorer has converted just 2.9 percent of his chances – one goal on 34 shots.
Nash frequently does everything right without getting the rub of the green. He forces defenders into turnovers and awkward positions. Nash uses his 6-foot-4 frame effectively to control the puck and outmuscle opponents – and he works his butt off in all three zones.
It’s hard to remember a performance in which a Ranger continually was denied by cruel posts and bad bounces. Nash tested Islanders goaltender Jaroslav Halak with five shots on goal. On another night, he would have lit the lamp twice and the Rangers would have snuck out of the building with a victory.
“Sooner or later, you have to convert,” Nash said. “It’s tough right now. Goals come in bunches, and you know when you’re in a drought, it’s always tough. Opportunities are there. Have to keep taking the puck to the net, and sooner or later, it will start to go in.
“You always want to score,” he added. “You get worried when you’re not scoring, but I don’t think I’m gripping the stick. I’m still making plays, I’m still getting opportunities. I just have to bear down a little harder to try to make them go in.”
If the application is correct, luck is bound to change. Nash is a career 12.2 percent shooter. His luck will even out as the season goes on. The Rangers have spent most of the young season playing below their caliber. As long as they can raise their execution and effort and not let it slip, they’ll claw their way back to where they want to be in the standings.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey