Rangers Searching For Answers And Their Identity

That which doesn’t kill you?

The Rangers know it’s early, and that 1-5 isn’t necessarily fatal. But they also know, and understand quite well, that game No. 7 on Tuesday (vs. the defending Stanley Cup champions no less) means it’s getting late.

“When you win games and you’re on winning streaks, it’s easy,” Rangers alternate captain Rick Nash said after practice Monday. “It’s easy to come to the rink. It’s fun. But I believe this is when you build character. It’s not an easy time right now but we’ve got to get through this and usually when you come through things like this, you come out stronger.”

Since a 8-5 loss in Toronto nine days ago, the Rangers have made marginal improvements defensively. On the whole, they haven’t done anything particularly well, though.

All the facets intertwine. Good defense with smart puck movement translates to offense, just as turnovers lead to defensive trouble and just as a decent forecheck – spending time in the offensive zone — means less time having to defend. Vice versa applies as well.

[Watch Tuesday’s Rangers-Penguins Game at 6:30 PM on MSG and Download Free on MSG GO]

Perplexing the Rangers most of all is the play of their forwards in all of those facets, which bottom lines at two even-strength goals in five games, not counting the Toronto fiasco.

The totals for Nash (one), Mats Zuccarello (one), J.T. Miller (one), Kevin Hayes (one), Chris Kreider (zero), Jimmy Vesey (zero), Pavel Buchnevich (zero) and Michael Grabner (zero), aren’t nearly good enough. Mika Zibanejad has five goals, but four of those on a power play that has also now stalled.

“So, I don’t think our one-on-one battles have been good enough and I don’t think our five-man forecheck has been good enough,” Nash said. “We’ve had spurts where we’ve been good, but too many other spurts where we haven’t been and it’s been hurting us.

“I think one thing that’s quite evident is the circling in the neutral zone. Our D have the puck and they’ve got no open man. Guys are coming off the wall. I think in past years when we were at our best, we would D-up, chip it in and get on that forecheck.”

Rangers coach Alain Vigneault has juggled and juggled his lines and his defense pairs, hoping something creates a spark. But even when things click, as they did for the first 25 minutes or so against New Jersey in a 3-2 loss Saturday, it doesn’t last.

“For me, I see this as we’re being challenged,” Vigneault said. “We’re facing some adversity as a group. The solution lies in that room right now and as a player, you’ve got to control what you can control – your hard work, your preparation. You’re making sure that every day you’re analyzing your game properly so you can focus on the areas that you need to improve. That’s where coaches come in, giving them the right feedback, and if we get our guys to improve their games individually, the team’s going to benefit.

“But I see a strong group that, right now, this is going to help with our identity. We’re searching for different roles. It’s going to help with our identity, it’s going to help with our character and it’s definitely going to permit our leadership group to establish themselves. And right now, everybody in that room knows they’re part of the solution and we’re working extremely hard to put it together.”

That leadership group lost two alternate captains during the offseason – Derek Stepan and Dan Girardi – and needs to figure this out.

“We’ve put ourselves in a bit of a hole here, so it’s definitely a shock,” Nash said. “But at the same time it’s reality and we’ve got to deal with it and try to get out of it.”

[Watch Tuesday’s Rangers-Penguins Game at 6:30 PM on MSG and Download Free on MSG GO]