SAN JOSE, Calif. — Not far from the end of the first quarter of the season, the Rangers are still trying to stabilize amid a choppy start that keeps them fourth in the Metropolitan Division.
There were losses that should have been wins, wins that should have been losses, and a period-to-period fluctuation in their game that caused whiplash. That “it” factor that every competing team seems to have — and Rangers certainly had it last season — hasn’t surfaced since their season-opening win over the Lightning a little over a month ago.
The Rangers may only be up against the Sharks in Game No. 19 of 82 on Saturday, but the 2022-23 season has passed enough for the close competition in their division to take shape.
Devils fans at the Prudential Center recently chanted an apology to head coach Lindy Ruff for calling out his job earlier in the season. Now the Devils have won 11 straight and lead the Metro with a 14-3-0 record for 28 points, tied with the Golden Knights for second in the NHL.
The Islanders are trying to make this a payback season after a losing campaign in 2021-22 and they’ve made a start that could allow them to do so. The Islanders currently sit third in the division with a .611 point percentage and an 11-7-0 record. And as expected, the second-placed Hurricanes are just as strong as last season.
The Rangers — particularly their star players — have a duty to break their funk of mediocrity if they are to remain competitive in a loaded Eastern Conference.
“[Opponents are] will have a pushback. We won’t be able to dominate a full 60 minutes, it’s still an NHL team we’re playing against,” Mika Zibanejad said after Rangers lost 3-2 in overtime to Kraken on Thursday . “But I think, saying that, there’s probably a lot of things we can do better if you feel the momentum. When you feel like they’re getting their chances. I would say they get a lot of chances from our mistakes and glitches and stuff.”
Scoring goals during a five-a-side game has been a problem lately. The Rangers were simply a quantum-over-quality shooting team when they had to be the opposite. They are currently the second most common losers with the Wild in games where they have outperformed their opponents (five), behind only the Flames and Panthers’ six.
Artemi Panarin, who leads Rangers by 22 points, has gone three straight games without a shot in a five-on-five for the second time in his NHL career. Rangers aren’t made to last through games where their top six don’t pull their weight — at least unless the team becomes an otherworldly goaltender.
Rangers have also struggled mightily when sidelined, which is what opponents seem to be focusing on.
There’s certainly a mental hurdle to overcome when a team tries to work their way out of a rut. However, nothing should be more motivating than what is happening around them in the Division.
“We have good chances five against five, we can’t expect every shot to go in,” said Zibanejad. “When the conversation starts, it gets frustrating that you can’t score five against five. Maybe you’re reconsidering, maybe you don’t have the confidence, maybe you’re looking for that extra pass to make sure it’s a better opportunity than you because you’re not sure you’re going to score. It’s small things and it can swing so easily.
“I don’t think it’s because I’m scared or thinking about it too much. We’ll just fight our way through. It’s up and down all season.”