I don’t know what is more annoying; the poor play of the Rangers thus far into the season, or the predictable knee-jerk reaction to it by the fanbase. Yes, the Rangers have been, at best, inconsistent three games in. Tonight showed as much. There were stretches where the Rangers cycled the puck in the Islanders zone as the home team watched helplessly. And then there were stretches where they couldn’t even get the puck into the zone. We haven’t seen a complete effort from the Rangers so far this season. Should we be disappointed? Yes. Should we be concerned? Not yet. If this 0-1-2 stretch came in January we wouldn’t even think twice about it. Everything is magnified in the beginning of the season because we don’t have anything else to compare it to, so while first impressions are perfectly fine to observe, we also need to use perspective. If moves were made every time a team had a bad three game stretch there’d be 30 trades every month. Let’s look back on tonight’s game as well as review the first three games of the season.
Penalties- Once again, the Rangers were their own worst enemy tonight. Especially at the beginning of the season, it’s important to be able to roll all four lines out so that the players can get a feel for the game and develop a tempo. It’s hard to do that when you’re starting every period on the penalty kill. Tonight the Rangers gave the Islanders eight powerplays, and two of them resulted in Islander goals. Through three games the Rangers have taken 7 minors in the first four minutes of a period and have taken one in the first four minutes of all three games. The Rangers have taken the 10th most minor penalties in the NHL, with every team above them having played more games. When you’re starting every game and ever period on the penalty kill it’s hard to develop any offensive momentum. Not to mention giving the other team opportunities to score with a man advantage. I have a feeling players will start to get benched if this continues. Simply unacceptable.
Referees- We’re doing enough to put ourselves in the box. We don’t need your help, refs. Ryan Callahan’s goaltender interference call was very soft, considering that a sliding defenseman made it virtually impossible for Callahan to stop his momentum. Ryan Callahan is quite possible the least likely player to initiate contact with a goaltender and he’s definitely smart enough to know not to do it. If there’s anyone in the world who can stop their momentum on a dime with only one skate on the ice I’d love to see video of it. But the most blatant mistake was the call on Brian Boyle that gave the Islanders a 5-on-3. The referee from the opposite side of the zone claimed that Boyle covered up the puck with his hand, which is a delay of game penalty. Of course, Boyle clearly never did as much. It was especially unfortunate because it was an incredible individual effort by Boyle to kill the Islanders penalty. The Islanders of course scored and subsequently killed all momentum the Rangers had generated from Gaborik’s goal. The Rangers can not blame the referees for the loss, and Tortorella echoed that sentiment. Still, it would be nice if the refs didn’t try to over-police the game.
Marian Gaborik- The people who wanted him sent packing are sure quiet, huh? Gaborik netted his second goal of the season and basically had his way with the puck. With a bit more luck he could have had a hat-trick. This was the Gaborik we had two seasons ago and it’s sure nice to see him appear again. If we’re going to have any chance of a deep playoff run this year Gaborik is going to have to play as well in the upcoming 79 games as he has in these past three.
The Defense- Oh boy. Staal and Sauer are sorely missed. On one hand, it does excuse the Rangers a bit. There are very few teams in the league who could lose a first and second pairing defenseman and not feel the effects of it. Nonetheless, with a team that is clogged with defensive depth the effort should be better than what we have seen. Though nobody is willing to admit it (because that would go against pre-determined beliefs) Michael Del Zotto has outplayed Ryan McDonagh. Averaging over 19 minutes per game, Del Zotto has been on the ice for only one goal against this season. He also leads the team in hits, is fourth in shots, and has not taken a single penalty. His confidence is sky-high and he’s moving comfortably with the puck on his stick without turning it over to the other team. McDonagh, on the other hand, has been irrelevant offensively and has turned over the puck too many times. Of course, some of that has to do with him being up against better competition than Del Zotto, but McDonagh also has a significantly superior partner in Dan Girardi. Sauer fared much better on the first pairing last season when called upon so, if not Staal, then it would be nice to get our third best defenseman back as soon as possible.
The Third Line- It’s always something with the Rangers. Immediately after the lockout the Rangers had a dominant first line and good forward depth but absolutely nothing on the second line. Then for a few years the second line got fixed but their was and underachieving first line. Finally, the Rangers have two quality top-6 lines, but now our third line is a black hole. Fedotenko is a decent and reliable player but he’s the sort that needs good teammates to function. When he was with Callahan and Anisimov he was more noticeable. Aside from Fedotenko, the 3rd line has seen Stepan, Zuccarello, Wolski, and Christensen. Outside of Stepan’s contributions on the first line tonight, can you name a single thing you’ve noticed any of those guys do? Forget about getting on the score sheet. A noticeable defensive play? A good forechecking effort? A big or well timed hit? A nice offensive effort? A shootout goal was even too much to ask for. If you are not getting on the scoresheet then you have to be doing something else, and that was my biggest criticism of Tortorella’s decision to keep Christensen on the roster. Guys like Alexander Semin and Ilya Kovalchuk can get away with contributing nowhere else because, more often than not, they end up on the scoresheet. Erik Christensen clearly does not contribute enough offensively to justify watching shift after shift of absolutely nothing. Certainly John Mitchell could do better. I’d even take career minor leaguer Kris Newbury over Christensen. To succeed in this era of the NHL you need to have four lines that can contribute something, and the Rangers do not have that right now. Christensen is at the center of that. This experiment needs to be over.
The Rangers travel west to face the Canucks on Tuesday. I wouldn’t count on Staal making the trip but perhaps we can catch a break with Sauer.