There is no question that the Rangers are off to an amazing start this season. Despite two losses in a row, the team still sits atop the Metropolitan Division. And, with a 13-5-1 record, the Rangers are third in the league in total points and first in goals for/against differential (+35). Yes, there is no question that this year, New York could be a real Stanley Cup contender.
But, after scoring 5 or more goals per game eight times in the first month of the season, over the last 10 days, scoring is down and cracks are starting to show through. The actual SO loss against Florida last night was not one of the cracks (unless you were counting cracks in the MSG ice). The Knicks had played at the Garden in the afternoon, only a few hours before the Rangers took the ice. The result was that the puck was jumping all over the place and there were uneven wet spots on the ice. This was pretty much fatal to the Rangers’ game, which relies on speed and quick transition. So, the Blueshirts struggled to even post two goals against the Panthers.
The line combinations themselves looked fine–you just can’t score if crisp passes either do not wind up where they are supposed to or bounce off a stick. And the defense did its job, blocking 10 shots and administering 11 hits, getting into the lanes and doing its best to make up for the terrible ice conditions.
Oddly enough, for the past two contests, including last night, it was Henrik Lundqvist who was not at the top of his game. Friday night, he let in two goals that he should have stopped, and last night, in the SO, he should have stopped both shots. Everyone has bad nights, no doubt, but this was really bad, two games in a row. No one should be panicking, but Antti Raanta should be considered to step in at this point.
In addition, Ryan McDonagh, the stalwart of the blueline, played more than 26 minutes last night. With a game against Pittsburgh tonight, one would have thought that maybe he would play a bit less against Florida and be saved for Pittsburgh.
And now, Mika Zibanejad has a broken leg. In OT, Mika got tangled up last night with Florida’s Reilly Smith and went feet first into the end boards. Now out with a fractured fibula for six to eight weeks, Zibanejad, the Rangers’ second line center, will be very hard to replace. He certainly won’t be replaced by Matt Puempel, another former Ottawa Senator that the Rangers picked up off waivers today. Last night, Head Coach Alain Vigneault asked to be given the flight to Pittsburgh to figure out who would move to center. We were expecting maybe Oscar Lindberg, for as AV said, “[w]e’ve got some options there in the middle with Josh (Jooris) and Pirrs (Brandon Pirri),” but there was no expectation that Puempel (who has six points in 52 NHL games) would be in the mix for a roster spot. Marek Hrivik, who is on almost a point per game pace (15 points in 16 AHL games), can play center and in all situations. Hrivik was the natural player to call up, but it appears that he is not in the team’s plans. It is a shame, because Hrivik played adequately last season during a call-up and he has improved his play this season. Hrivik at least has the ability to score; not as much as Mika does, but he brings so much more to the table than does Puempel.
The sign of a real Stanley Cup contender is the ability to overcome adversity. Sometimes that adversity comes early in the season. How the Rangers rebound from Mika’s loss will give us will give us a good idea whether or not the Rangers are contenders or pretenders. The next month is key.