One by one the Rangers pronounced that this was not the time to panic, their declarations unsolicited, at that.
Truth be told, if the Blueshirts were in a panic mode following a 1-3 start that has featured generally lousy hockey, then that would be reason for panic in and of itself.
“Good point,” said Kevin Hayes. “Still, we can’t keep going like this and we all know it.”
That, too, is a good point.
The Rangers went through a skills practice on Wednesday in which the players, split into three groups, worked on stickhandling and shooting. Coach Alain Vigneault said that with a pair of off days preceding the next game on Friday in Columbus, this “day of hockey school” had been part of the original plan.
Still, it could not have come at a more fortuitous time for the Rangers, who have been out of whack and ragged coming up ice with the puck and have had difficulty making sharp passes in the offensive zone when they have had control.
The Blueshirts have scored five goals in 189:58 of five-on-five play, or as many as they have scored in 25:38 on the power play. Forwards Mika Zibanejad, Mats Zuccarello and J.T. Miller and defensemen Brady Skjei and Marc Staal each have one at even strength. That’s it.
“A few of us generally come out an hour or so before practice every day to work on our skills, but it’s not often when we’re all on working on them,” said Hayes, who’s had a so-so start. “It helps you because you kind of recognize certain situations in games where you’re getting the puck in stride or have a scoring chance.
“You don’t have the puck that much in a game or maybe even in a regular practice. Touches are always good.”
The Blueshirts haven’t yet looked like a cohesive unit. They haven’t been able to generate a sustained attack. They have not been able to establish a foundation. Teams endure stretches like this, but with this one coming right out of the gate for a team that made significant offseason modifications, this group lacks a base of positive reinforcement on which to fall back.
“We’re trying to sort out our identity here,” said Vigneault. “We’re trying to sort out our chemistry whether it’s with duos or linemates. That’s where we are.”
Vigneault has traditionally done a lot of early experimentation. In the 36th game of his first year on Broadway, Dec. 20, 2013, against the Islanders, the coach moved Brad Richards to left wing because he still hadn’t figured out what to do with his squadron of five-deep centers, and oh, for that problem now. Cutting and pasting has always been part of the coach’s MO.
Still, the dramatic moves following that disastrous first period in Toronto on Saturday in which the Maple Leafs feasted for five goals, and since which lines have been scrambled and perfectly logical defense pairs have been busted — and Brendan Smith, unavailable for comment following practice after having been scratched in consecutive games in favor of Nick Holden and/Steven Kampfer — certainly has not created a sense of stability.
It does not make sense that Vigneault won’t use Hayes on a second power-play unit that has come up empty, albeit in only about 6:40 of time, but then everything here is being analyzed under small-sample conditions. There is the coach’s preference not to use players on both the penalty kill and the power play, but Hayes was on both units last year. Similarly, it does not make sense that Skjei hasn’t gotten even so much as a second of ice at the second PP unit point, where he operated so smoothly last year.
Still, the players cannot use the personnel shifts as crutches. Still, that is no excuse for the club’s slow starts. The Rangers have been behind in their three defeats at 5:29 (on the third shot); 2:30 (on the third shot); and at 0:15 (on the first shot).
“It’s not that we’re not prepared or haven’t gotten the pre-scouting information or don’t know the system,” said Skjei, who committed a ghastly turnover that led directly to St. Louis’ quick-strike goal on Tuesday. “We have to be focused on making the smart play and the right play on the first shift and then build from there.”
They must build themselves up one block at a time.
“We’re a work in progress and there is a lot of work to do,” said Vigneault. “But I feel that everyone is willing to put in the time and effort to get better.”
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