By Sean Hartnett
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The 2-6-2 Rangers are in a malaise through 10 games. This team has been plagued by awful starts, disjointed execution and a desperation level that is nowhere near the required standard. In no way does the on-ice product resemble anything close to a playoff hockey team.
Even star goaltender Henrik Lundqvist has started off his 13th season in substandard fashion. The 35-year-old netminder has let in uncharacteristic goals and owns a .900 save percentage that’s 19 points below his career average.
Right now, the Rangers look like Sisyphus – the Greek mythological figure who futilely rolled the boulder up the hill only to see it come back down and hit him again and again. Through 10 games they cannot get out of the way and opponents are punishing their flaws on a seemingly endless loop.
“We shoot ourselves in the foot and put ourselves in a hole, and it’s been going on for 10 games,” alternate captain Rick Nash said after Monday’s 4-1 home defeat to the San Jose Sharks. “We talked about this after game five, game six, you expect it to get going. We had it for one game. Tonight was a huge game for us to have a response, and we didn’t have it.”
Unlike Sisyphus, who was doomed to repeat his actions for eternity, the Rangers have an opportunity to dig themselves out of this rut. It’s important to remember that a poor 10 games can be the exception and not the rule in a marathon 82-game season. The Rangers have time on their side to put this right.
Ten games are by no means an indicator of where a team will be at the trade deadline or the 82-game mark. It’s a sliver, but it cannot be allowed to continue to snowball into something larger and more destructive. Head coach Alain Vigneault has full confidence in the talent level and character of this group.
“Everyone in that room has got to be better than they are right now,” Vigneault said. “This personnel is good. We’ve just got to play the right way. Unfortunately, right now in the 10 games, we’ve gotten behind, and we’ve gotten behind early. Right now, our inability to find the back of the net is hurting us, but there is definitely skill and talent in that room. We had plenty of good opportunities tonight. Obviously, you have to give credit to their goaltender and the group in front of him. When you get close to 20 scoring chances, you should be able to score more than one goal.
“What we have to do right now is get back to our groove,” he added. “We’ve got two days here of good practice time in front of us, and then we’ve got to focus on the next game – focus on every shift that you’re on the ice, trying to make a difference, and if you get a break like we got right off the hop, you’ve got to keep working. I thought our guys kept working, but I do think that we can execute and play better – and everybody in the room. I firmly believe that.”
When a team’s character is tested, its true identity can be revealed. These are the times when the captain’s ‘C’ on Ryan McDonagh’s jersey and the alternate captain’s ‘A’ take on a deeper meaning. An energized shift, a selfless play or a jaw-dropping save can be the catalyst to change the psyche of an entire group from downcast to unshakably confident.
There’s a reason why McDonagh is the captain and is supported by Nash, Mats Zuccarello and Marc Staal as alternates. And everyone knows that Lundqvist is the heartbeat and soul of a team whose confidence extends outward from its franchise goaltender. Right now, Lundqvist is not playing with the conviction of a goaltender who recorded a .927 save percentage last playoffs.
“It was just a game where too many bad things happened, I guess,” Lundqvist said. “It started off there with a deflection there on our own guy, and that kind of set the tone for this game. I made a bad read on the second goal and the third. We battled real hard, and they scored that late one to kind of take the momentum away from us. They played smart, but in the end that mistake I make on the second goal is something I obviously I have to do a lot better. I get caught ahead of the play, analyzing what’s going to happen after he puts it in front.”
Vigneault trusts this group to get it right, and it’s up to the leaders to show everyone the way.
“Whether you’re wearing an ‘A’ or a ‘C,’ there’s good leadership in that room, and I’m very confident in their ability,” Vigneault said.
The turnaround must start Thursday against the Arizona Coyotes. It’s time for the Blueshirts to recapture their mojo and execute at the level they’re fully capable of.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey