One thing nearly every New York Rangers player was talking about during the five-day training camp was that it was important that the team gets off to a good start, as there's only 48 games and early-season points are much more important than they would be in a full season.
Well, things clearly haven't worked out that way for the club.
The Rangers failed to find their footing in their first game against the Boston Bruins last Saturday. An early Carl Hagelin penalty killed the team's early momentum, and from there on the Rangers never seemed to have the chance to implement their forecheck and went down easy by the score of 3-1.
The following night, both fans and head coach John Tortorella were hoping for a rebound in front of a capacity opening-night crowd at Madison Square Garden. But again, a penalty in the first minute of the game allowed their opponents, the Pittsburgh Penguins, to grab the momentum, although this time the Penguins capitalized and put the Rangers behind the eight ball very early.
The rest of the contest was an abomination for the Rangers; the defense collectively did their best pylon impression, and on offense, Rick Nash seemed to be the only one willing to attack the net. The Rangers were again brushed aside by one of the Eastern Conference's top teams, this time by the score of 6-3.
Wednesday night the Rangers were a better team in what was an early-season rematch between the Bruins. They had their feet moving early and were able to keep the puck pinned in the offensive zone during the entire first period. Players who looked out of it in the previous two games seemed engaged, and it seemed for a while there that the Rangers were back.
Until the second period, that is. The defense began to collapse again and turnovers had the team running around in circles in their own zone. As for the offense, if your name wasn't Nash, Richards, Gaborik or Pyatt, you really weren't being effective. Although the team struggled in the latter stages of the game, Gaborik rescued the Rangers in overtime as they defeated the Bruins 4-3.
So, what have these first three games of the season taught us about the Rangers?
Well, there's still quite a bit of work to be done. We know they're capable of being a successful team, because they've shown it at times. Whether their early-season struggles are a byproduct of a shortened camp or not is yet to be seen.
Regardless, here are the three weaknesses the Rangers must address this season if they are to be Cup contenders come spring time.
The Rangers' biggest problem last season was their goal scoring. So what did they do? Went out a traded for one of the league's best goal scorers.
Sounds good, right?
Well, Nash is only one player, and the Rangers gave up two versatile young forwards to acquire him. They also lost Ruslan Fedotenko, Brandon Prust and John Mitchell through free agency—all players who pitched in offensively despite being bottom-six guys.
Taylor Pyatt, Aaron Asham and Jeff Halpren were brought in as replacements, and young guys like Carl Hagelin and Chris Kreider were not only supposed to assume Anisimov's and Dubisky's point totals, but improve off of them.
But the truth of the matter is, Pyatt has been the only one of those five players who has shown up this year so far. Asham has only played one game, so he's excused, but the other three need to start pitching in. Gaborik, Richards and Nash can't score all the goals.
The real question here is, do these guys even have the ability pitch in? The bottom six is littered with guys who don't have a lot of talent at all. It seems at times that Brian Boyle couldn't hit the net if his life depended on it, and MIke Rupp appears to be getting worse with every game he plays.
Also, are young guys like Kreider and Hagelin good enough to be trusted in top-six roles yet? Krieder's performance over the past three games combined with his miserable AHL campaign are leaving many, including his coach, wondering if he's ready for this. As for Hagelin, his zero goals in the playoffs last year left fans skeptical about this season, and his invisibility on the scoresheet and costly turnovers have further fueled that skepticism.
Bottom line is, the Rangers need guys other than their stars to pitch in. If the players they have can't get it done, they're gonna have to make yet another move or look to free agency to bring someone in. They won't win anything with one line.
John Tortorella want's his Rangers team to be a smothering, in-your-face type of team that doesn't allow the opposition a chance to execute its game plan, but rather be forced to play the Rangers' game.
He wants them to do this by carrying the play in their opponents end, where they can cycle the puck and generate their own momentum and scoring chances while defending with a high forecheck. Back in their own end, he wants to see guys getting in shooting and passing lanes for blocks.
When the Rangers do all of that, they're a highly successful hockey team.
But they—like any other team—have their weaknesses. One of their biggest is their tendency to collapse on Henrik Lundqvist and allow their opponents to move the puck freely and fire away. Very little momentum can be gained from a habit such as this.
It's already begun to happen throughout the first three games of this season. The Bruins play a similar style to the Rangers, in the sense that they too like to get the puck deep and get their opponents running around in their own end. And in both games this season, the Rangers have allowed them to do that by collapsing on their goaltender.
Whether or not this occurs because Tortorella has pounded the idea of blocking as many shots as possible into their heads or because the team is easily worn down by its current system is unknown. But the truth is that, as good as this team can be on defense, there are times where forwards and defenseman alike are running around like chickens without heads in their own end, forcing them all to collapse on Lundqvist and perform last-ditch attempts to protect their goalie.
What's funny is, many teams around the league believe this is just the way the Rangers want to play, but it's not. It's a bad habit that the Rangers get themselves in and a major reason this team lost to the Devils in the conference finals last year.
In a shortened season, the Rangers should remain relatively fresh and have the opportunity to influence more games in their favor by playing in the other team's end.
There was a time when the Rangers were were one of the best shootout teams in the league.
Guys like Michael Nylander, Petr Sykora, Mats Zuccarello and Erik Christensen were experts in the art of the breakaway, while Henrik Lundqvist was, and still is, an ace.
But last year, the Rangers struggled in the shootout, posting a 4-5 record.
Brad Richards came to this team as one of the best shootout guys of all time with a career 41.7 percent success rating. But last season, he scored only one goal in nine shootouts.
The team also traded Christensen midway through the season, while Zuccarello spent most of the season in Connecticut, which left the team short on shootout specialists.
The one bright spot for the Rangers in this category was Marian Gaborik, who traditionally has never been a good shootout guy, despite being immensely talented. He ended up being the Rangers' most effective player, scoring four goals on seven opportunities.
The question regarding Gaborik will be whether or not he can continue to perform in the shootout. His subpar past could lead many to believe that last year was a fluke.
Rick Nash being brought in will help this team in shootouts, too, as he was perennially Columbus' best shootout guy during his time spent there.
The shootout will be even more important this season because it is only 48 games long. Points will be hard to come by and picking up a crucial extra point after overtime is going to be key for not just the Rangers, but every team.
Shootout performance is most definitely something Torts will have to address, but if Lundqvist, Nash, Gaborik and Richards all perform well in them over the course of the season, than the Rangers' shootout worries will be a thing of the past.