No one said it would be easy. The New York Rangers opened the season in the teeth of the Western Conference, miles away from home and, apparently, miles away from ready. They completed the swing with four games in six nights – three against legitimate Cup contenders – with the final one coming last night in St. Louis against a polished Blues team.
Well, no one was wrong. The western road trip was many things for the Rangers, but it was certainly not easy. They come back east with just one win and two points to their name, with four more games separating them from the Madison Square Garden ice. Perhaps the Eastern Time zone will do them some good, but Alain Vigneault and the Rangers need to adjust far more than their watches and mental clocks.
A good place to start? How about the defensive zone. In 5 games, the Rangers allowed a whopping 25 goals, consistently neglecting their goalies like a band of timid sentry. That’s right; with The King in net the infantry fell limp, surrendering 179 shots on the path from Phoenix to St. Louis. Consider these averages – 5 goals and 36 shots against per game – and the mind inevitably recalls the Blueshirts of the early 2000’s, a string of teams that looked at defense like some impenetrable cypher.
Those teams, of course, we’re so undermanned the NHL almost hid them away in a bedroom under the stairs. Mike Richter was battling concussions and nearing the end of his line, the blueline outfit was simply a giant masquerade, and the forwards played the type of 1-way game none of them were good enough to justify. So Ron Low and Bryan Trottier can be somewhat pardoned for those porous Ranger teams.
Alain Vigneault has no such alibi. The Rangers are a fully-loaded team, with the best goaltender in the universe. They boast arguably the deepest set of defensemen in the Eastern Conference and – notwithstanding injuries to Rick Nash and Carl Hagelin – have plenty of skill up front to put the puck in the net. For a team that was tagged as a Cup contender this summer, the Rangers look shockingly average.
And that might be generous. But for now, at least, they deserve the benefit of the doubt. For if Vigneault can’t point to a lack of personnel, he can surely point to a lack of time. He has been molding this team – the one he took out West – for less than two weeks. And his baptism as Rangers coach came by crackling fire, as he led his troops from one Western Conference stronghold to the next.
Early on, it was clear the team was struggling with the new system. And who could blame them? Most of the guys in New York sweaters had been so conditioned to play one way under John Tortorella – some of them for the past four years – that they seemed unsure of themselves in a new operation. Where Tortorella asked his teams to be physical and direct, Vigneault encourages a more creative, free-flowing style of play. And suddenly afforded more freedom on the ice, the Rangers have balked at the responsibilities that come with it.
This has been no more evident than in the team’s defensive coverage. Vigneault employs an overload system in both ends of the rink, meaning that the Rangers press all five players toward the location of the puck. The idea is to outnumber the opposition on one side of the ice in hopes of generating a turnover and creating an odd-man situation. This is the same system Vigneault used in Vancouver, where he turned the Canucks into a perennial Western Conference juggernaut.
The flaw in this philosophy is that the weakside of the ice is left exposed. If the Rangers lose, or fail to gain possession of the puck and the weakside forward cannot block the cross-ice passing lane, two things will consistently happen: odd-man rushes coming out of the offensive zone, and backdoor/point chances coming in the defensive zone. In Phoenix, San Jose and Anaheim, the Rangers fell victim to such breakdowns time and again.
But in Los Angeles it clicked. The result was a 3-1 win and the only game of this young season in which the team allowed less than 30 shots on goal. And last night in St. Louis, it kind-of sort-of clicked again. Had it not been for a poor performance from Martin Biron (4 goals on 17 shots, two he most definitely wants back) and an empty fuel tank in the third period, the Rangers may well have skipped out of town with a 3-2 win.
Instead of condemning their defensive flaws and 5-on-5 struggles, we would be praising the team’s efficient power play (!!!) and the rejuvenation of Brad Richards (4 goals in 5 games). Instead of ruing an ugly 1-4 start to the season, we would be praising the Rangers for salvaging this Western Conference swing with a gritty win.
But as Henrik Lundqvist noted last night, though the Rangers were close, “close doesn’t get you points.” While it’s a positive sign that the team looked more comfortable last night, more sure of themselves, the fact is they lost. Unless they can begin converting strong performances into wins, a tight 5-3 loss to the Blues means nothing more than a rotten 9-2 loss to the Sharks.
If they can build on last night’s effort on Wednesday against Washington, then it will mean something. But for now, they should simply be happy they are coming home.