Over the course of an NHL season, we learn a lot about a team. Sometime in November we learn how they play, and sometime in January we learn who they are. By the end of the year, we learn how to define them.
That team is an offensive force. This team is a counter-attacking machine.
So who are the New York Rangers? How do we define them? In short, we don’t. Because right now, three games into the NHL season, the Rangers are nothing. Their black and white play has made them a hazy entity, and thus no entity at all.
Monday night against the Los Angeles Kings, the Rangers looked like one of the premier teams in the NHL. They pressed the Kings almost all night long, coming at them in droves and forcing turnovers in important areas of the ice. Their lines were balanced and free-flowing, while the top unit – Richards, Stepan, Nash – was especially on key. Henrik Lundqvist appeared in middle-of-the-year form and the defense in front him was quick and alert.
If we had slapped a label on them after the impressive 3-1 road win, it might have read “offensively engaged, defensively sound.”
Then Tuesday night came along. 24 hours after outplaying the Kings, the Rangers were simply wasted by the San Jose Sharks. They were a step – often two steps – behind from the get-go, and could do little but stand flimsily in the way of a rumbling locomotive. And it wasn’t that they capitulated upon contact, but that they simply never had a chance. As if the Sharks found the team’s clicker and hit “mute.” The offense generated nothing, the defense forgot to sign in and Lundqvist was pulled after allowing 4 goals on 26 shots.
If we had re-labeled them after the reeking 9-2 loss, the description would have been closer to “offensively inept, defensively absent.”
In 24 hours, the Rangers covered the hockey spectrum. One night, they provided a winning model worthy of a hockey textbook. The next night, they became the “scenario to avoid.” How so shiny to so rusty, so stainless to so blemished?
Well, it’s early. And the Rangers are under the tutelage of a new coach still implementing his system. If nights like Tuesday are the natural byproduct toward more nights like Monday, then so be it. As October progresses and gives way to November, the gaps in performance from one game to the next will grow smaller. Ultimately the off-nights, though frustrating, will turn into winnable games.
That’s the goal, anyway. Because the Rangers, with the talent they have, are rarely going to lose games when everything clicks. But if they can find a way to win games when the orchestra falls out of sync, to steal the wins that aren’t theirs, they’ll like where they find themselves in April.
That’s not so much an identity as a mentality. A toughness. A persistence. But that doesn’t diminish its importance. The Rangers, in all likelihood, will come to be known as a team that can score and a team that can defend. If they’re not tough, though, if they’re not hardy, they will end up where all of Vigneault’s teams ended up in Vancouver: short of immortality.
So for the rest of this grueling 9-game road trip, the Rangers shouldn’t look to go 6-0. A team with enough loose ends to lose by seven goals doesn’t have much business thinking about winning streaks. No, what the Blueshirts should focus on is narrowing that gulf between bad and good. As the push the shore of the latter toward the shore of the former, their odds of winning on any given night will grow.
If they come home to The Garden at 5-4 or 4-5 showing some signs of consistency, then they can look down the line and eye wins in bunches. But for now, the Rangers need to settle into their new identity – whatever it may be – and start becoming who they are.