GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- New York Rangers defenseman Marc Staal knows what the coaches and some of his teammates are saying about how much better the team played in St. Louis on Saturday. To an extent, he agreed.
Yes, he said, the Rangers were better in the defensive zone in their 5-3 loss to the St. Louis Blues than they were against in their two previous games, an embarrassing 9-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks and an almost equally bad 6-0 loss to the Anaheim Ducks. He also thinks they were tougher to play against in St. Louis, that they were better at limiting scoring chances against and at breaking out of the defensive zone.
Staal saw the results because the Rangers made the Blues defend more than the Sharks or Ducks had to, at least through the first 40 minutes of the game.
"It was better, but it is still not acceptable," Staal told NHL.com. "We let five goals in. You can't beat someone 6-5, not in their rink and not that good of a team. We did some things within the game that were better, but we still had those mistakes that ended up costing us. We have to work harder to get better."
There are no dissenting opinions inside the Rangers' dressing room. Some of the players may have different opinions on how to fix the defensive woes that have cost the Rangers in their 1-4-0 start, but they all agree there are major problems and they need to rectify as many of them as they can before they face the Washington Capitals on Wednesday at Verizon Center (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN2, RDS2).
Defenseman Dan Girardi said it's too easy to blame the system the Rangers still are trying to grasp. It's different under coach Alain Vigneault than it was under former coach John Tortorella, but Girardi said the changes are subtle enough that they shouldn't be confusing the team as much as they have been.
"It's more man-on-man feel in the [defensive] zone," Girardi told NHL.com of the Vigneault system. "We're trying to outnumber them in the corner if we can, but at the same time we have to make sure everyone is doing it. If we're all doing it, we all have to go. Sometimes guys are in between. There's still a little hesitation, but when in doubt go to the middle of the ice and figure it out, get your check and see everything from there."
He blamed missed assignments and mismanagement of the puck for the high volume of goals-against; the Rangers have allowed 24 in their four losses.
"They're pretty simple fixes, it's just each player taking responsibility for the [defensive] zone and doing your job," Girardi said. "We made a lot of good strides in the last game. We didn't win, but it was more of our game. We still let five goals-against, but it was more taking care of the puck a little better and sustaining some offensive pressure too."
Staal thinks getting used to the new system has caused some of the hesitation because the Rangers aren't reading plays quickly and reacting instinctively yet. Time and attention to detail can fix that.
However, Staal also said if the Rangers improved at playing simple defense, doing the things they should be doing regardless of the coach or his defensive systems -- "Taking guys to the net hard, closing on the corner quick, making good plays out of your end zone," Staal said -- they will be able to play more instinctively within the system.
"I think it comes down to just playing smart defense," he said.
They think they did that in St. Louis. Vigneault identified the first two periods, in which the Rangers outshot the Blues 24-17 and yet still trailed 4-2, as positive steps.
"We saw signs of improvement," he said.
Martin Biron was in net for those four goals on 17 shots, but he was replaced by Henrik Lundqvist, who stopped 16 of 17 shots in the third period. Biron was placed on waivers Monday. Lundqvist likely will have a new backup for the game Wednesday in Washington.
"Henrik played like Henrik in the third period in St. Louis," Vigneault said. "The first two periods I thought we played extremely well against a real tough opponent."
New York cut the deficit to 4-3 early in the third period, but Vladimir Tarasenko scored with 9:18 to play and Vigneault said his team "ran out of gas." They were outshot 17-5 in the third period, including 11-2 over the final nine-plus minutes of the game. Vigneault blamed it on the fact the Rangers were playing their fourth game in six nights in four different cities.
"There was nothing left in the tank," he said.
The players agree there is something to be said for the schedule causing their early-season woes. It goes back to before the start of the regular season.
New York had to bring 39 players on a west-coast road trip in the preseason because it was playing four games in five nights. Practice time was limited and it was hard to get the full group that would be on the opening-night roster together on the ice at the same time.
The Rangers returned home for a few days, but went back out west to start the season with games in Phoenix, Los Angeles, San Jose, Anaheim and St. Louis. Vigneault referenced the fact that the team was on the road for 21 of 25 days before returning home from St. Louis, but its practice Monday was only its second since winning in Los Angeles the previous Monday.
"It's nice to be on east coast time," Staal said. "Being in our home practice facility, practicing with our group, working on things, it is a positive thing for us but it's really only going to be positive unless we make it one. It comes down to winning. We have to do that."
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