Rangers Stuck in Neutral

At 11-5-2, the Rangers lead the Atlantic Division with 24 points, six more than the Pittsburgh Penguins, who have played four fewer games. They continue to lead the Eastern Conference as well, but considering their fantastic opening two weeks this season, all is no longer well on Broadway. Even though their defense has been outstanding and Henrik Lundqvist can be counted on game after game, the Blueshirts have found themselves struggling because they can’t seem to find the back of the net with any regularity.

With the shootout loss last night, the Rangers have dropped four of their last five games because of an ineffectual attack. No team can survive in this league long term scoring just two or three goals a game; it’s an impossible task no matter how good the defense plays and how remarkable the goaltending is.

Coach Tom Renney has tinkered with the top three line combinations with little results. The leading goal scorer, Aaron Voros has six tallies. His output has been a pleasant addition, but the fact that he leads the team indicates that others are not performing up to expectations. Only Nikolai Zherdev has dazzled on the offense, his plus ten rating is far and away the best.

Markus Naslund is progressing slowly and captain Chris Drury finally ended his drought; both have five goals, but more offense is needed from them. Drury blew a golden opportunity recently with a failed penalty shot late in the game. Scott Gomez hasn’t found his stride completely either. Both Drury and Gomez currently have a minus five rating. It’s time for someone to step up and lead the team offensively.

When it comes to shootout time, Renney has no go-to guy to jump-start them. He has used Fredrik Sjostrom in these situations and has gotten good results. But that speaks volumes for the Rangers overall lack of superior offensive talent. They need a sniper, pure and simple. What they have now are five or six 20-30 goal scorers. Petr Prucha, who gave the impression that he could be just that kind of a player, has been an absolute non-factor. His fall from grace from his rookie season has been precipitous and his place on the squad is growing ever tenuous.

As for the positives, the defense has been stalwart and the penalty killing unit has kept them in many games. But the number one reason the Rangers are still where they are is goaltending. With last night’s performance, Lundqvist has surrendered two or fewer goals in his last nine games. He is a marvelously talented netminder and a great competitor.

There is no panic at MSG; the season is just 20% complete. The Rangers will find a way to score a few more. They started out white hot and have now cooled off, but they’re still in front. What helps their positional status most this season is that all their divisional opponents are having problems as well.

Pittsburgh is not the same team that almost won it all last year and the New Jersey Devils will never be as competitive without Martin Brodeur. As for the Philadelphia Flyers and the New York Islanders, it’s not looking too good for either of those clubs.

So with a weakened Atlantic Division, the Rangers are the team to beat. But if Renney doesn’t come up with some answers soon, it will be much more difficult than it should be.

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