Even though the New York Rangers woke up Sunday morning with a little more breathing room at the top of the NHL’s Eastern Conference, they all say they have more things to worry about in their last seven regular-season games than holding off the Pittsburgh Penguins.
If you take the Rangers at their word, not many of them spent Sunday evening watching the Penguins play the New Jersey Devils in a game that would allow them to draw closer to the Rangers.
“They’ve been coming hard even though you try not to look at them too much in the standing,” Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist said. “I think it’s more important to get a good feeling in the [dressing]room down the stretch, build our confidence and work on our game.
“It’s even more important than the first seed [in the playoffs] The difference between the teams is so small I think it doesn’t really matter who we face in the first round. Obviously, home advantage is important but after that it’s kind of wide open.”
The Rangers claim to have problems in just about every area of their game, which is why they are 5-5 in their past 10 games as the Penguins came on strong. Up front, the Rangers are not one of the most explosive teams in the NHL, even though centre Brad Richards and right winger Marian Gaborik are clicking. Their defensive game needs tightening and even Lundqvist, who is headed to the Vézina Trophy as the best goaltender in the league, says he could be sharper, too.
“We have a lot of things to clean up over these last seven or eight games,” Richards said. “It’s not in our game plan to be giving up three or four goals like we have been in the last three weeks.
“Some of the mistakes have mounted a little. Earlier in the year, we’d get a save and then get a goal to get back in it. We haven’t been as opportunistic in those areas.”
Rangers head coach John Tortorella was a little more forceful on the topic after the Rangers pulled out a 4-3 shootout win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night.
“I thought we were ugly as hell through a number of minutes,” he said. “We have a lot of things to work on. But killing penalties, blocking shots, we found a way to win a road game.”
Tortorella has been juggling his lines in the past few games, trying to find a way to goose his offence. Richards and Gaborik, who combined for two goals and two assists against the Leafs, are the only forward combination that is staying together for now.
The troubles on offence are mostly found in the power play, which went into the Leafs game 29th among the NHL’s 30 teams. It went 2-for-19 in the Rangers’ past six games.
Defensively, the Rangers lack consistency. They tend to give up too many odd-man rushes and allow opposing forwards a little too much room in front of Lundqvist.
“We want to play the way we’re structured to play, which is good defence, great goaltending and then when it’s time to take those chances offensively we do that,” Richards said.
And they will, says the coach, who did not have to add or else.
“I know the things we need to get done are correctable and we will do it,” Tortorella said. “We will get it straightened out.”
WHAT’S THE RUSH?
One of the New York Rangers’ problems of late is their defensive coverage. They are particularly prone to giving up odd-man rushes, which cost them in a 4-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres last Friday and again on Saturday to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Sabres scored three times on odd-man rushes and defenceman Cody Franson scored for the Leafs on Saturday on a 2-on-1 rush with Phil Kessel.
The problem, according to Rangers forward Ryan Callahan, is that when the first two Rangers fore-checkers are in the offensive zone for a bit they tend to forget their defensive responsibilities. This makes it easy for teams to have a fourth player jump into the rush uncovered.
However, after giving up the Franson goal, Callahan allowed that he and his teammates “were better at that tonight, minus that 2-on-1. We didn’t allow that may odd-man rushes.”
Then again, as noted, plain-spoken Rangers head coach John Tortorella disagreed.
KING HENRIK NEEDS TO BE BETTER
New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist is far and away the best goaltender in the NHL this season. His win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday was his 35th in 56 appearances and he took a 1.91 goals-against average and .933 save percentage into the game.
However, Lundqvist, 30, maintains he needs to use the last seven games of the regular season to get better for the playoffs.
“The last few weeks have been okay but I haven’t played great, so I’m pushing myself now to get my game going,” he said. “Going from okay to great is sometimes the difference between winning and losing.
“It might be one goal a game. I want to be able to make the extra save to make it a 3-2 game or 2-1 game.”
The 56 games are Lundqvist’s lowest number of appearances since his rookie season of 2005-06. He said fatigue will not be a problem in the postseason.
“I feel pretty much the same right now as I always do,” he said. “Going down the stretch, you always have a lot of energy. I hope the difference is late May, early June when you feel you have energy. That was why the number of starts [was lower this season]”
It may not sound like much, since he had exactly three points in 10 games since he was called up from the Rangers’ farm team on Mar. 11, but the loss of forward Mats Zuccarello was significant. He broke his wrist after blocking a shot Friday night in a game against the Buffalo Sabres and will be out indefinitely.
Since his arrival, Zuccarello gave the Rangers power play a boost. He scored the winning goal on a power play against the New Jersey Devils last Monday and had an assist on a power-play goal the night he was called up. It was a welcome addition for a power play that is mired in 29th place among the league’s 30 teams.
“It [stinks]” Rangers defenceman Ryan McDonagh said. “He came in here and added an element that we hadn’t seen all year. He’s worked really hard down there in Hartford to make his way back here. We’re gonna miss him on the ice and miss him around the team for sure.”
DUBINSKY IS NOT TEACHER’S PET
Rangers forward Brandon Dubinsky is not having an easy NHL apprenticeship under Tortorella. Dubinsky, 25, is in his fifth full NHL season and is coming off a 54-point campaign in 2010-11.
However, Tortorella is not happy with Dubinsky’s defensive game and is quick with the hook, which means his offensive production is well behind last season’s. On Saturday night, Dubinsky was benched shortly after scoring his ninth goal of the season against the Maple Leafs.
“We need Doobie but I’m not going to watch the same mistakes all the time. For us to get where we want to be, he needs to be part of this. I’ve said this from god-damned Day 1. But we need to see consistency in all parts of his game,” Tortorella said.