Gerard Gallant already against the clock to find Rangers’ identity
On the day it got an hour earlier for New Yorkers, it started to become a little bit late for the Rangers.
Yes, I know. The season is 13 games old. But I’m not quite sure whether the modifier should be “only” 13 games or “already” 13 games.
Because just about one-third into 2022-23, the Blueshirts have won fewer than half their contests, the record dropping to 6-4-3 following Sunday’s 3-2 overtime defeat at the Garden to the Red Wings after carrying a 2-0 lead into the second period.
I’ll tell you what though, it surely was not too early for head coach Gerard Gallant to drop an inconspicuous Chris Kreider to the fourth line with Ryan Carpenter and Julien Gauthier in a series of line changes in the third period. Kreider’s feet just aren’t moving. This was as dramatic a move as Gallant has made in his regular-season 95-game tenure behind the New York bench. It has probably been a long time coming.
“He deserved to be where he was at,” said the coach. “He wasn’t alone.”
The Rangers are in the middle of the pack of those clubs currently outside the playoff cutline, and what’s more — or less — is that this team has yet to establish any sort of identity. Mika Zibanejad and Jacob Trouba — two of the four players who deigned to be available to the media — talked about how the team knows what its game is and has to get back to it, but that seems a leap of faith at this moment.
This isn’t last year’s team. Jaro Halak might have turned in the team’s best netminding performance of the year in this 33-save effort that at least preserved a point but the Blueshirts have not been able to lean on their goaltending as they did through Igor Shesterkin’s Vezina-winning 2021-22 campaign. Indeed, the team ranks 25th in five-on-five save percentage at .906. That was kind of Arizona territory last season.
Thirteen games in and it is quite the challenge to be able to identify what this group does notably well. To suggest that the Rangers are not a particularly physical group would be in the running for understatement of the season. They forecheck in spurts. There is too much risk to their puck-management game. They don’t defend the crease especially well.
And for a club with as many skilled marquee players, the Rangers are impotent at five-on-five. They left the ice on Sunday 25th in the NHL with 2.1 goals-per-60:00 and also rank 25th in five-on-five goal differential percentage at 44.90, having scored 22 and allowed 27. Their power play, allegedly vaunted, ranks 15th after Sunday’s 1-for-2.
These are not numbers befitting a Stanley Cup contender. These are numbers that might not befit a playoff team.
The first period represented one of the club’s best of the season, the Blueshirts leading by two goals after 20 minutes for the first time since the second game of the year in Dallas. But their energy dissipated quickly. Their attack went kerflooey. The Red Wings, 7-3-2 and a legit threat to end their six-year postseason drought, took control.
Perhaps it is more accurate to suggest the Rangers handed it over, as they did so many times with the puck. There was also an egregious line change by the Zibanejad-Kreider-Kaapo Kakko unit that directly led to the Wings’ 2-2 tying goal on a second rebound at 8:37 of the second period that was scored without a Blueshirt forward in the picture. There appeared to be some unawareness in coverage of the first Detroit goal that was scored on a deflection from in front.
Get this: the Rangers have not held the lead going into the third period since the fourth game of the season, Oct. 17 against Anaheim.
The pace at times, or at least when the Rangers were attempting to weave through the neutral zone, seemed like September. Kreider, who got a season-low 15:03 of ice but did get the first shift of overtime, was fingered more than any other forward by Gallant, who mixed all of his lines. Assistant coach Gord Murphy, who runs the defense, seemingly fingered Zac Jones, No. 6 getting just one shift in the third period, that one coming in the second minute.
The line combinations that have been essentially static are not producing. Gallant shifted Alexis Lafreniere to Filip Chytil’s wing in the third while moving Sammy Blais up to Vincent Trocheck’s flank. Artemi Panarin, who can’t seem to get his passes through, skated on Zibanejad’s left. The third period was better than the second but it was not enough.
Neither Zibanejad nor Trouba took this one lightly, the captain acknowledging that playing 60 minutes has been a season-long challenge for this group. The Rangers cannot be happy with their state. They are in for a long struggle if things don’t turn rather quickly.
Thirteen games into the season, it’s gotten late pretty early.