Following latest bad loss, Rangers searching for answers with Avalanche in town tomorrow

What was worse? The Yankees blowing Game Four in predictable fashion to get swept by the hated Astros, or the Rangers again stinking it up in their latest bad loss to the Blue Jackets, who played a back-to-back, but won comfortably.

Both were mind-numbing. Obviously, the Yankees bowing out in four to their archenemy in the Bronx leaves a stench to end the New York baseball season. Aaron Judge couldn’t get any big hits. Aaron Boone couldn’t manage. A few of the players couldn’t play simple fundamental baseball in the field.

On the flip side, you have the Rangers who have been underwhelming so far. They’ve only played six games. The last three have been tough on the eyes. Particularly the last two defeats both coming on home ice to the lowly Sharks and Blue Jackets. Neither of which they played well in. A point hammered home by puzzled coach Gerard Gallant.

While baseball has now ended (does anyone care for the Phillies-Astros World Series) giving way to a very interesting off-season for both the Yankees and Mets, we’re still in the early stages of the hockey season. It’s not even Halloween yet. That’s a week from now. So, you can still check out some spooky houses and pretend to be Jason, Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, or personal favorite Heath Ledger’s Joker. The women have more creativity. Although I’m preferential to Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn and Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman.

The reality is the Rangers have only played six games in this ’22-23 season. Although they got off to a 3-0 start, there were things that were a concern in blowout wins over the Wild and Ducks. Mostly in the defensive zone. They seemed to coast in the third periods of those games. It finally caught up to them in the home defeats to San Jose and Columbus. Winnipeg was a back-to-back and they probably deserved better.

However, the lackadaisical play in consecutive home losses to the Sharks and Blue Jackets is worrisome. You don’t want to fall into bad habits. In each, inconsistent defensive play allowed their opponents to take control. It happened on the Sharks’ tying goal in a second period they controlled. It again reared its ugly head on consecutive goals from the Jackets that turned a 3-1 deficit into a 5-1 ugly loss.

Both defensemen and forwards have not been in sync. There’s been examples in almost every game where opponents are scoring off easy chances without much resistance. Sam Gagner was allowed three shots at it before beating backup Jaro Halak in the Winnipeg loss. Radek Simek beat two Rangers to score the tying goal last Thursday. Then Erik Karlsson was left alone for an easy put away in overtime as three skaters watched him get the winner.

Columbus had been beaten handily by the Pens 6-3 on Saturday night. They gave up the last five goals. But on the second of a back-to-back, they had no problem exposing the Rangers’ issues. While some pointed to Halak getting the start over Igor Shestyorkin and giving up one soft goal to Andrew Peeke, what do they have to say about the easy goals Eric Robinson and Kent Johnson got 44 seconds apart to finish off the Blueshirts?

It isn’t about one player. Gallant made that point in a brief press conference last night when asked about Halak. Of course, the proud veteran wasn’t pleased with his performance. He allowed five goals on 21 shots. He called it not one of his best efforts. But if you look closely, the Rangers are out-shooting opponents and out-chancing them in these games.

That doesn’t necessarily mean total dominance. Not when there are noticeable defensive lapses that let opponents off the hook. They aren’t on the same page. Barclay Goodrow talked about playing the system earlier today. However, he couldn’t pinpoint one reason for the recent struggle.

Outside of a 3-1 win over the Lightning in the opener, Gallant hasn’t been pleased with what he’s seen. Too many lost battles. Too many lapses in concentration. He wants them to play faster. Turk was very pointed in his remarks that he felt they looked too slow. He even thought they looked like the team who played the night before. A ringing indictment of their play.

It doesn’t help matters that an undetected high hit to the back of Filip Chytil made head contact early on to end his night. He left after playing 11 seconds. How they missed the clear interference on Cole Sillinger is beyond us. Even if accidental as it looked on replays, that has to be called.

Chytil suffered a head injury. According to New York Post beat writer Mollie Walker, he’s expected to miss at least the next four games. That means out for the Avalanche and Islanders on Tuesday and Wednesday. Then, won’t travel for the Stars or Coyotes. Not good. Especially given the lack of depth due to the salary cap.

Without Chytil, Gallant mixed and matched his lines. With the top line going cold, he even tried leading scorer Artemi Panarin with Mika Zibanejad and Kaapo Kakko. Chris Kreider saw time with Goodrow and Vitaly Kravtsov, who took 15 shifts logging 11:33 in his return since the upper-body injury he suffered on Opening Night on a Victor Hedman hit. He was a little more active on a few shifts in the third. But both his attempts were blocked by a disciplined Columbus defense. They rejected 21 Rangers’ attempts.

Down to 12 forwards now that Dryden Hunt has joined Colorado which means he will return to MSG tomorrow night with Alex Georgiev, Jimmy Vesey will be back in the lineup after sitting out Sunday night. Gallant wants him to play solid two-way hockey. He’ll get an opportunity on the third line with Goodrow and Kravtsov.

At least he’ll go back to the more familiar top six, which means Mika Zibanejad between the slumping Kreider and Kaapo Kakko. Panarin returns to the cohesive second line that includes Vincent Trocheck and Alexis Lafreniere, who can use a goal. He does a lot of good things during shifts. But they need him to produce.

Goodrow is the jack of all trades for this team. He can play anywhere. So, having him center the third line is fine. He’s a bit better on face-offs than Chytil. But not as explosive. However, he makes up for it in grit. Having Vesey with Kravtsov is interesting. Maybe they’re hoping to see the preseason version of Vesey. He was in on the forecheck and created offense.

Sammy Blais joins the checking line with Ryan Carpenter and Ryan Reaves. That’s the closest thing to a Crash Line. Having both Blais and Reaves take the body should inject energy. Carpenter has been solid in the fourth line center/penalty killing role that Kevin Rooney once filled. For Blais, it could be a better fit. He hasn’t looked like a top nine forward. Let him get back to doing what he does best. .

As for the defense, only Jacob Trouba and Ryan Lindgren are staying committed to playing their end. They let you know they’re there. Partners Adam Fox and K’Andre Miller are frequently getting caught out of position. Or in Miller’s case, taken off the puck like Sunday night which resulted in a goal against. He has to play stronger. Especially when it’s Gustav Nyqvist winning the battle.

The third pair has been up and down. I can’t say it’s due to Zac Jones, who’s skating can get him out of trouble and lead to transition. Braden Schneider is off to a poor start. He’s been beaten for a few goals due to his positioning. He is only 21. His main job is to play smart defensively and take the body. He’s been thinking too much offense. In order for it to work, he has to get back to what we saw after he came up last January.

With the schedule picking up, it’s time for the Rangers to raise their level. They sure can elevate their play. Even with a thin roster, there’s enough experience to make the necessary adjustments. They know it won’t be easy. There’s a target on their backs. It’s up to the players to respond to the challenge.

It promises to be interesting to see what they do tomorrow with the defending champs visiting The Garden. Then, the archenemy Islanders, who have their own issues. But as we know, they get up for these rivalry games. They’ll also be rested. That doesn’t matter.

It’s time for this version of Turk’s Blueshirts to show the resolve we saw in Year One. It starts Tuesday night on national TV.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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