- Katie Strang, ESPN.com
- 0 Shares
NEW YORK -- Forty-eight games or 82, it is still far too early to start sweating over the back-to-back losses that have offered a disappointing start to the Rangers' lockout-shortened season.
The Blueshirts are sloughing off the rust just like the rest of the NHL, but if the issues troubling the team now are not rectified soon, there will be some legitimate cause for concern.
After dropping the season opener to the Bruins on Saturday, the Rangers fell 6-3 to the Penguins in the team's first game at Madison Square Garden on Sunday. It may sound silly, but that separation Pittsburgh has gained in the Atlantic Division race already feels significant to the Rangers, who are now four points out of the division lead.
"We can't use the early-in-the-season thing," said alternate captain Brad Richards, who picked up two assists Sunday. "The only good thing is we're only four points out of first in the division, but it's gonna come quick, and we can't let it snowball. You don't want to do that anyway in an 82-game season, but with only 46 games left it's gotta be corrected quickly."
The lengthy work stoppage did not soften the fans' scorn or dull their scrutiny -- the team was booed multiple times after being hemmed in for extended periods in their own end -- nor did it temper coach John Tortorella's expectations.
Consider this: Tortorella pulled starting goaltender Henrik Lundqvist in just the second game of the season after the reigning Vezina Trophy winner gave up four goals on 18 shots. Not once did Lundqvist come out for a performance reason last season. In fact, it hasn't happened since March 31, 2011, when he was yanked after two periods in the team's 6-2 loss to the Islanders at Nassau Coliseum.
Tortorella went to bat for Lundqvist -- and rightfully so, as he wasn't the sole reason the team faltered so early -- saying he didn't want to leave Lundqvist out there with the quality of play in front of him. But the King was far from royal, a fact he plainly admitted.
"Personally, it was just a tough night," said Lundqvist, who has given up seven goals in the past two nights. "I couldn't really track the puck really well. I don't really have a good explanation."
No one is expecting sharp hockey -- a tic-tac-toe power-play goal like the one from Chris Kunitz to Evgeni Malkin to Pascal Dupuis in the second period will be few and far between these first couple of weeks -- but the fact that the Rangers have yet to resurrect the requisite battle level and fight that helped them secure the Eastern Conference's best record last season is indeed a tad troubling.
Rick Nash, who scored his first goal as a Ranger and was one of the team's best players, is new to the Big Apple, and even he knows this isn't how it's supposed to be done in New York.
"I don't think we're pushing the panic button, but it's not the start we wanted, and we've got to get back to work," Nash said. "There's a lot of mistakes out there that we have to correct and it's a short season, so we've got to correct them fast and make sure we come back better."
The most concerning item that has cropped up the past two games? The amount of time the team has spent in its own end. That burned the Rangers against the Bruins and was even worse with the likes of Malkin, Sidney Crosby and James Neal to deal with in the defensive zone.
Asked to identify what detail or element of the game needed the most improvement, Tortorella couldn't choose just one. Very little is safe from his scorn right now.
"All of them, and that is certainly not being sarcastic," he said. "All of them."
Tortorella didn't even blast Brooks Orpik for his open-ice check on Chris Kreider that left the rookie wobbly with time winding down in regulation. Instead, he endorsed the hit as clean and seemed to covet more edge and snarl from his own team.
"That's a big problem with our club right now," he said. "Maybe we need to get whacked around a little bit more to wake us up."
The lengthy work stoppage did not temper John Tortorella's expectations.