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Friday, March 22, 2013
Henrik Lundqvist roars

By Johnette Howard

Henrik Lundqvist is not a man who raises his voice or does things for show. He is the New York Rangers' most important player. So when he clears his throat a little, as he did after Thursday's god-awful loss against the lousy Florida Panthers, the effect should be taken more like Lundqvist roars.

The Rangers had just lost 3-1 to the Panthers, and a weary-looking Lundqvist allowed that yes, he had seen this movie far, far too many times before. It doesn't matter if the Rangers are playing good opponents, or a lousy team like the Panthers -- and at the Garden, no less -- it was a game that was all teed up for the Rangers to win. Except, once again, the Rangers had trouble scoring. Again, they came out flat. Their power play remains unreliable.

The usual.

"It's getting old," Lundqvist told reporters.

Then: "We just have to put the puck in the net."

It's as close to a cry from the heart as you'll ever get from Lundqvist, who usually just accepts his workhorse role for this team.

But it's hard to be a great team -- as the Rangers were supposed to be this season -- when you're always asking your goaltender to be perfect. A lack of scoring was the same thing that killed them in the playoffs last season, and sent the Devils to the Stanley Cup finals instead of the Blueshirts. Even when the Rangers play hard and fling themselves in front of shots, they just can't score. Even when they won a lot more last season, little ever seemed to come easy for them. How to change that continues to elude them.

The Rangers woke up Friday morning with the fewest goals scored in the Eastern Conference, even though they added Rick Nash to the team. And there is no reason to feel confident in saying they should beat slumping Washington when the Capitals come to the Garden on Sunday, either. Not after the way the Rangers played a Panthers team that has surrendered a league-worst 111 goals this season, 10 more than the next-worst club, the Islanders. The Panthers' goals for/against differential is also the league's worst by far, at minus-34.

In short, when it comes to coughing up goals, playing the Panthers is about as close to shooting fish in a barrel as it gets in the NHL. And still the Rangers could scratch out only one goal.

Their razor-thin margin for error is something Lundqvist spoke up about too.

"[We] have to be almost at 100 percent [on penalty kill opportunities] because we're in the position where we don't have the luxury of a lot of goals," he said.

If you're a Rangers fan, you have to hope Lundqvist's laments flew straight from his lips to Glen Sather's ears. Sather and assistant GM Jeff Gorton are contemplating whether to make a move by the trade deadline. If Thursday's defeat doesn't give them a little urgency to try a little something, no loss will. It was more galling than the Rangers' loss a couple weeks ago to a nose-diving Buffalo team that started a backup goalie who hadn't won since the Zamboni was invented.

The Panthers have only nine wins all season. That's a nice three weeks for conference-leading Pittsburgh.

There have been too many of these kinds of games for the Rangers this season. While the lack of scoring is easy to pinpoint, the rest of what the Rangers are missing is a lot harder to quantify.

They always deny that the grueling style they play drains them over the course of the season. But of course it can. It's a very, very hard way to play.

You never see any back-channel griping leaking about John Tortorella, either. But is he one of those coaches who, like a lot of martinet coaches, has a short shelf life? You see that all the time in sports. And when a team is as confounding as this Rangers team is, you can't help but wonder ...

One day, a hard-driving coach's haymakers just don't seem to have the same effect. The postgame insults, the cage-rattling demotions to the fourth line, the snapping reminders you should be better than this, they all stop registering. Nothing gets a rise out of the team. Stuff that worked on players before doesn't work anymore. They're just left feeling their head hurts and their legs are weary and they're gripping the stick so tightly that they can't score a goal even when the puck comes straight to them in the crease and they're staring at an open net. Wins bring more relief than joy.

The Rangers are ninth in the Eastern Conference standings right now rather than comfortably floating near even the middle of the pack. They should be able to find enough consistency to make the playoffs. But they should be more concerned about how they're equipped to make a run once they get there. Lundqvist was right to "roar" in his quiet but brutally honest Lundqvist way.

Even a near-perfect goaltender can't always save an imperfectly clicking team.