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Tuesday, October 18, 2011
Panic Meter: Keep your Blueshirts on

By Mike Hume

One glance from Manhattan across the Hudson River is all it takes to be reminded of how a slow start can trash lofty NHL expectations. Three games into their 2010-11 season the New Jersey Devils were still searching for their first win after inking the premier talent on the free agent market just a few months earlier. It was the start of a downward spiral that cost head coach John MacLean his job and all-but crippled the Devils’ playoff hopes before the all-star break.

As they embark on a lengthy western road trip still in search of their first win, it seems as if the Rangers could be standing on the precipice of a similar sinkhole.

Sitting at 0-1-2 after acquiring Brad Richards, the Rangers may feel a little uneasy as they try to measure up to their optimistic preseason outlook. Add in the lingering effects of Marc Staal’s concussion and a brutal road slate that doesn’t bring the Blueshirts back for their Garden home opener until Oct. 27 and fears of an insurmountable early hole aren’t entirely irrational.

The Rangers are having major issues inside their own zone and taking far too many penalties. At the other end of the ice, their offense isn’t mustering many shots. It’s a bad formula that could equate to a lousy season if they can’t nip it in the bud early.

Staal’s absence has been keenly felt and Michael Sauer’s murky shoulder situation could strain the Rangers’ defensive depth even more in the days ahead. That’s not good for a club that’s getting outshot by an average of 6.7 shots per game in its first three games.

Part of that discrepancy has been caused by penalties, of which the Rangers have taken 22 in seven games. In all, the Rangers have already spent nearly half a game (29 minutes) on the penalty kill this season. In that context it’s no wonder the Blueshirts have surrendered three power-play goals in three games. In fact, it’s probably surprising they haven’t allowed more.

The Rangers’ physical style of play, particularly on the forecheck, certainly makes them prone to penalties, particularly with the league’s added focus around the boards. But if you look back at the early penalties, the majority are positional, rather than physical infractions. Interference, hooking -- those are the signs that a team is getting beat defensively and has to commit an infraction to try to keep up.

Playing on the PK, or just spending the majority of even-strength time in their own end is curbing the effectiveness of a Richards-infused offense as well. While Marian Gaborik has clicked with his new center, the Rangers are averaging just 24 shots per game in the early going, almost six fewer than last season’s average and the second-lowest mark in the league during the young 2011-12 season.

All of this said, we’re still only three games in, the Rangers’ travel plans have made it look like they’ve been chasing down Carmen Sandiego and two of their top three defensemen are injured. John Tortorella may not want to use it as an excuse, but it has to have an impact. So is it time to fret as the Rangers prepare to embark for Southwestern Canada?

On the contrary, here are a few reasons for optimism:

Refuge on the Road

We may have forgotten this over the summer, but the Rangers were far from great inside the under-construction confines of Madison Square Garden. Over the past two seasons, the Rangers won just 38 of their 82 home games. That’s not a record that’s going to strike fear into the hearts of opponents when they roll down Broadway. Meanwhile the Rangers have been very strong on the road, with a record of 44-32-6 on the road over the past two seasons. This doesn’t mean the Blueshirts are better off away from the Big Apple, but it does show that Tortorella’s team isn’t allergic to luggage.

Competition Considerations

Not all road foes are created equal. And while the Rangers will continue their intercontinental tour out West, their opponents aren’t exactly terrifying.

Sure, the Canucks nearly claimed the Stanley Cup last season, but Vancouver’s dealing with a slow start of its own, as well as a crucial injury to C Ryan Kesler. Calgary sits at 1-3-0 and looks like a team closer to a rebuild than a deep playoff run. Edmonton’s top line is going to be one of the NHL’s best three seasons from now, but the Oilers remain an awfully young team that lost 8-2 the last time they tangled with Torts’ boys. And Winnipeg's only got one win so far, too.

All things considered, the Rangers catch some breaks on this road show. They’ll need them, considering they definitely have some serious issues to address. But at this point, panic seems premature.