It's still too early in the 2013-14 season to really pass judgment on any players or teams. But it's impossible to have a discussion of the National Hockey League's early-season disappointments without mentioning the New York Rangers, who have gone 1-4-0 to start the season and have a League-worst minus-16 goal differential entering action Tuesday night.
With four games remaining on their crazy nine-game season-opening road trip, the Rangers must turn things around. And they're going to get a great opportunity to do that against the Washington Capitals, a team they eliminated in the first round of last year's playoffs.
I've spoken to several guys on the Rangers and their biggest hurdle is they didn't get a regular training camp. While Madison Square Garden was being renovated, they were in Banff, Alberta for camp. They had tons of travel through the western time zones and they played their preseason games out there, so they never felt settled. They just felt like they were displaced. Also, they're playing a different style right now that they're not quite used to.
It hurts me to say it, but I don't think we've ever seen a stretch like this for Henrik Lundqvist, where he has struggled to this extent. But, really, nobody is playing well. The only person who is playing well is Brad Richards, who really wanted to have a bounce-back season and worked extremely hard in the offseason training with Martin St. Louis up in Connecticut.
You look at the game against the San Jose Sharks, which I thought was a drubbing and a beatdown, and everyone remembers Thomas Hertl's fourth goal. The move was amazing, the skill set was amazing. But the thing that really got me was how one diagonal pass beat five Rangers and a goalie. That to me really put in perspective how much they're struggling defensively. The way their team looks right now, they're not managing the puck, they're turning the puck over, they're making poor decisions with the puck, they're not getting the clears out of their zone. I think it's pretty safe to say that this team is underperforming in a very big way.
If there is any game that could have a playoff atmosphere this early in the season for the Rangers, it could be this matchup with the Capitals, mostly because the Rangers and Capitals have faced each other in the playoffs four times in the last five seasons.
That playoff intensity can pass over to the following season. There were definitely situations where I felt it carry over against teams that we played against in the playoffs. Certainly, that can give you a boost. If you can get that kind of a boost this early in the season and feed off that energy as a player, you're all the better for it.
There is a good rivalry between these two teams. And this could be the perfect opportunity for the Rangers to get this thing going. The challenge for the Rangers is they can't afford to go 1-8-0 and then go back to New York. The Rangers fans love their team, they bleed blue, but it's New York. Expectations are high and they want to win. They need to get their things in order to give the fans something to cheer about.
But Washington's power play is sizzling right now, so the Rangers will have to stay out of the penalty box. They haven't done it yet this season, as their 17 penalty minutes per game is among the highest averages in the League. If they can't stay out of the box, they could be in trouble against a Capitals team that last season had the best power play in more than 20 years. This season, these guys are moving the puck around like it's on a string on that power play.
What makes the Capitals' power play so dangerous? They give you multiple looks. They've optimized the players in certain positions on that power play. They'll attack off the high wall. They have options on the blue line, a goal line attack. They have one-timers through the box. Pretty much any play you can make on the power play, they can make that play.
The offseason addition of Mikhail Grabovski has only helped Washington's play with the man advantage. He's a heck of a player. I really liked him in Toronto. He's a much grittier guy than people recognize. That guy has played through a lot of injuries. It wouldn't surprise me if he scored 30 goals this season.
Some might think the Capitals rely too much on their power play, but sometimes there is a correlation between your power play and your five-on-five play. If your power play can get you one or two goals per game, even if you're struggling five-on-five, that could be the difference. Against the Capitals, it changes the way you play five-on-five because you have to be a lot more responsible. You can't just say, "we're going to be physical." Next thing you know, you're in the box and bing, bang, boom they score two goals on you.
In the end, the onus is really on the Rangers. And let's be honest, they've been terrible. There's no reason the Rangers shouldn't be a Stanley Cup contender this year. In fact, both of these teams should be challenging the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference. The Caps have shown some good signs, obviously they're power play is on fire. But the Rangers have underperformed. There are a lot of talented people in that room who care. This team should be playing better. And the Rangers are going to get a great chance to do that Wednesday night in Washington.