SAN JOSE, Calif. — Not too far from finishing the first quarter of the season, the Rangers are still trying to stabilize themselves amid a choppy start that has them sitting in fourth place in the Metropolitan Division.
There have been losses that should’ve been wins, wins that should’ve been losses and a fluctuation in their game from period to period that has incited whiplash. That “it” factor every contending team seems to have — and the Rangers certainly had it last season — hasn’t made an appearance since their season-opening win over the Lightning just over a month ago.
The Rangers may only be on to Game No. 19 of 82 on Saturday against the Sharks, but enough of the 2022-23 season has passed by for the tight competition in their division to take shape.
Devils fans at Prudential Center the other night were chanting an apology to head coach Lindy Ruff for calling for his job at the start of the season. Now, the Devils have won 11 in a row and are leading the Metro with a 14-3-0 record for 28 points, which is tied with the Golden Knights for second in the NHL.
The Islanders are trying to make this a redemption season after a lost campaign in 2021-22, and they’ve gotten off to the kind of start that could allow them to do so. With a .611 points percentage and an 11-7-0 record, the Islanders are currently ranked third in the division. And as expected, the second-place Hurricanes are just as much of a force as they were last season.
The onus is on the Rangers — particularly their star players — to break out of their funk of mediocrity if they want to remain competitive in a loaded Eastern Conference.
“[Opponents are] going to have pushback. We’re not going to be able to just dominate a full 60 minutes, it’s still an NHL team we’re playing against,” Mika Zibanejad said after the Rangers lost 3-2 in overtime to the Kraken on Thursday. “But I think in saying that, there’s probably a lot of things that we can do better in terms of when you feel the momentum swing. When you feel like they’re getting their chances. I would say that they get a lot of their chances off of our mistakes and breakdowns and stuff.”
Scoring during five-on-five play has been an issue as of late. The Rangers have simply been a quantity-over-quality shooting team when they need to be the opposite. They’re currently tied with the Wild for the second most losses in games in which they have outshot their opponents (five), behind only the Flames’ and Panthers’ six.
Artemi Panarin, who leads the Rangers with 22 points, has gone three straight games without a single shot at five-on-five for just the second time in his NHL career. The Rangers aren’t built to persevere through games in which their top six aren’t pulling their weight — at least when the team isn’t getting otherworldly goaltending.
The Rangers have also struggled mightily when they’ve been pushed to the perimeter, which is something opponents seem to be focusing on.
There’s certainly a mental hurdle to clear when a team is trying to work its way out of a rut. Nothing, however, should be more motivating than what’s going on around them in the division.
“We have good chances five-on-five, we can’t expect every shot to go in,” Zibanejad said. “When that conversation starts going, it gets frustrating that you can’t score five-on-five. Maybe you might overthink it, maybe you don’t have the confidence, maybe looking for an extra pass to make sure it’s a better opportunity than you have because you don’t feel confident that you’re going to score. It’s little things and it can swing so easily.
“I don’t think it’s going to come from being scared or thinking about it too much. We’re just going to fight through it. It goes up and down throughout the season.”