Rangers On Verge Of Breaking Out?

When Alain Vigneault took over the Rangers in 2013-14, they were, or became, arguably fastest team in the league, perhaps along with Montreal.

Now, ironically, after shedding three of their slowest players – Derek Stepan, Dan Girardi and Kevin Klein – the 1-5-2 Rangers are no longer a fast team.

Why? Well, for one thing, the Rangers and Habs set the bar at the time and the league from Edmonton to Newark has most certainly caught up.

But more to the point, the Rangers aren’t fast – and this could be a temporary malady – because they don’t play fast. They don’t play a game that’s conducive to speed. Quite the opposite, in fact. They play a game that slows them down.

See all the parts of the game are interconnected, and the Rangers’ speed in their first two seasons under Vigneault – a Stanley Cup final followed by a Presidents’ Trophy – started with good defensive play, cohesiveness as a group, and taking good care of the puck.

Thus far, the Rangers haven’t done any of those things particularly well. Actually, they’ve done those quite poorly.

There was a point in the middle of the second period of Thursday’s shootout loss to the Islanders when trailing 3-1, Jesper Fast got a puck deep and chased it down, delivering a hit on an Islanders defenseman and leading to a long shift in the offensive end. It stood out, to me anyway, because it hasn’t happened nearly enough.

Then Fast did it again. Late in the period, Marc Staal chipped one in and went after it, and offensive chances followed. With two minutes left in the period, J.T. Miller, after a turnover that was committed then recovered by the Rangers, got it deep, which led to perhaps the Rangers’ best offensive-zone shift(s) of the season.

The Rangers need, in the worst way, to play that way because A) getting the puck deep greatly reduces the myriad neutral-zone and defensive-zone turnovers they’ve committed; B) in a system designed for short shifts, it allows them to spend time productively, rather than the lengthy fire-drill defensive-zone shifts; and C) will eventually result in opponents backing off enough, and/or coughing up pucks, to allow the Rangers to use their speed through the neutral zone and attack.

But the Rangers, when they’ve struggled the last few years, would rather not get pucks in and roll up their sleeves. They play a fancy game sometimes – a lot so far this season – and that’s destined for failure, especially when the team is still searching for defense pairs and effective lines and, well, chemistry.

They did it in parts of their only win of the year against Montreal. They did it for stretches of their crushing overtime loss to Pittsburgh Tuesday. And for part of the game before that, a loss to the Devils.

On Thursday, when the Islanders started to play haphazardly with the puck in the third, mostly due to the Rangers’ pressure, the Rangers got back into the game, coming back from 3-1 and applying a week’s worth of pressure to tie it, before losing in a silly skills competition.

No team plays a perfect game ever, but the Rangers haven’t played anything close to a solid 60 minutes yet. Perhaps this latest shootout loss was the lesson that finally gets through. We’ll see.

There are tons of areas where the Rangers still need to improve, and plenty of “situation-awareness” issues they need to clean up.

The old hockey adage is that a team in a slump usually loses a couple it could have won before finally coming out of it. The Rangers, with all their warts, could have won the last two. But didn’t.

So, again, we’ll see.