Rangers Season at a Crossroads

We saw Henrik Lundqvist, during the “Road to the Winter Classic” and just before the Christmas break, telling his Rangers teammates that they should know they haven’t been good enough and asking if they all agree.

We saw Lundqvist Saturday, going down the bench and barking at his teammates after backup goalie Ondrej Pavelec was pulled against the Islanders.

Now it was Sunday night in Pittsburgh, and a two-game/two-day losing streak coming out of the Rangers’ bye week was just piled up on top of a spread-out stretch of subpar performances.

“In my mind, it’s not a couple of games,” Lundqvist said in a post-game video posted on the team’s website.

“I think the past month here, the level is just not high enough. You almost get tired of yourself sitting here trying to find the right thing to say. It comes down to, just go out and execute now. We can talk about what we need to do, how important it is in coverage, and getting pucks deep, and when we do that we’re a good team. But enough talk. We just need to do it.”

[Watch Rangers-Flyers Tuesday on MSG & MSG GO]

That’s where it starts when the Rangers play well … and when they don’t. It starts with better coverage in their own end, but also down the other end, where spending time in an opponents’ zone with an effective forecheck can alleviate any difficulties that come with having to defend for too much of a game, or even a stretch of a game.

It’s a matter of will and focus, sometimes. Simple as that. But the Rangers haven’t forechecked nearly enough lately and their coverage has been spotty, largely as a result of being overtaxed by chasing the puck instead of having it.

So both ends suffer.

The Rangers have zero regulation wins in their last 10 games (a few of them, such as a 1-0 shootout win vs. Washington, were strong performances). They have allowed 30 or more shots on goal in 15 straight, including four games of 40 or more. They’ve yielded 40 or more shots 12 times through 44 games.

That playing too much in the defensive zone has translated into a struggling offense too, with just 15 goals scored in the last nine games and two goals or fewer in eight of those (the exception being three in the overtime win over Buffalo in the Winter Classic).

Injuries are piling up too, with Kevin Hayes and Ryan McDonagh missing Sunday’s game – the first this season in which three regulars were out. The Rangers really miss Chris Kreider, out long-term after ribcage surgery following a blood clot.

Kreider may not be on the level of a true “star” player, but he is so important to this team as a speed weapon, arguably their most serious goal-scoring threat, and a player who can not only create turnovers but also recover puck on the wall. Not to mention the havoc he causes in front of opposing goalies, particularly on the power play.

On Sunday, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault was asked about the need to generate more shots, something the Rangers’ forwards haven’t been inclined to do. Many teams now go for quantity over quality, hence the skewed shot totals.

“A lot of teams are (taking) bad-angle shots, and jam away at those rebounds,” Vigneault said. “We’ve been a team that’s been able to get a lot done in the past, 5-on-5. The makeup of this (team) is obviously a little different, so we probably need to simplify a few things and (taking more shots) would be one of them.”

There is an urgency now, or should be, with Philadelphia coming into The Garden Tuesday, Buffalo Thursday, then a four-game Western trip before the All-Star break.

“This (the Pittsburgh game) was definitely a step in the right direction,” Lundqvist said, comparing the effort and performance to Saturday’s 7-2 loss to the Islanders. “We had more energy jump to our game. We played a really good team.”

He paused and added, “but it comes down to, in my mind, awareness. You know, just being on our toes. Again, a step in the right direction, but overall we know we have to come together here and start playing our best hockey if we want to stay in the race. Teams are getting better, so, yeah, if we want to stay in there we’ve got to improve. The battle level needs to be extremely high every night.

“You’ve got to face it, too. The last 15-20 games, we’re a team that’s going to battle to get in (to the playoffs). We score about two goals again, so obviously we’ve got to limit our mistakes to stay in games. That’s a fact.”

[Watch Rangers-Flyers Tuesday on MSG & MSG GO]