The last home opener: Rangers finally play at MSG after surviving arduous 9-game road trip

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports

The best victory song in the National Hockey League blared from the speakers, the voice of Maxine Nightingale filling the room and spilling down the hall. You know the song, the one from the movie “Slap Shot,” the one with the happy beat and the perfect lyrics for the New York Rangers. And it’s all right, and it’s coming on … We gotta get right back to where we started from …

“Nothing like hearing that right now,” said alternate captain Brad Richards, smiling as he threw his gear into his bag. It is all right. It is coming on, or at least it’s starting to. And the Rangers, finally, mercifully, after so much time on the road, after so much gone wrong, are getting back to Madison Square Garden.

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The Rangers need more production from the likes of Derick Brassard. (USA Today)

Thanks to a dramatic 3-2 overtime victory over the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday night, the Rangers are 3-6-0 heading into their home opener Monday night against the Montreal Canadiens. That’s good for seventh in the Metropolitan Division, barely above the basement. That stinks. But under the circumstances, they have survived, and if this were a movie, this would be the opening, not THE END.

“When people around the team are writing us off, we have to believe,” Richards said. “It’s just another step in the process of a long season.”

“You feel you’ve been written off?”

“Yeah,” Richards said. “For sure.”

Writing off the Rangers would be silly. It’s just too early. Save the cliche that you can’t make the playoffs in October, but you can miss them. There is a new alignment and new playoff format. The Rangers need to finish in the top three in the Metropolitan (or earn a wild card), and other than the 7-4-0 Pittsburgh Penguins, no one else in the division is above .500, either.

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The Rangers are five points out of second with two games in hand, and the Blueshirts haven’t even worn their blue shirts yet. They still have 41 games on Broadway, not to mention two so-called road games outdoors at Yankee Stadium.

Are there concerns? Absolutely. Winger Rick Nash is out indefinitely with a concussion. Captain Ryan Callahan is probably three weeks from returning from a broken thumb. Winger Carl Hagelin is probably another three or four games from returning from shoulder surgery and might not be sharp immediately. Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who hasn’t looked himself, is returning from a mystery injury Monday night. How sharp will he be?

There is a gaping hole at the top-six center position – not because of injuries, but because of doughnuts. Derek Stepan has zero goals after missing the preseason and signing a two-year, $6.15 million contract. Derick Brassard didn’t get on the board until there were 12.9 seconds left in OT on Saturday night. No wonder the Rangers are second-worst in goals per game at 1.67. (Move Richards back from the wing? No. The Rangers are better off with him there, where he doesn’t have to skate as much and has bounced back with a team-leading five goals and eight points. They need Stepan and Brassard to produce.)

“Those two, they are supposed to be our offensive players, our offensive skill,” said coach Alain Vigneault. “They need to start showing some of that.”

But the worst should be over for the Rangers. Remember how bad the Washington Capitals were early last season when Adam Oates took over as coach for Dale Hunter, written off, doomed, before everything clicked? They roared down the stretch and made the playoffs in a weak division. There is a little bit of a parallel here.

When Vigneault replaced John Tortorella, he lightened the mood and went from simple to sophisticated, like Oates did when he took over for Hunter. He was going from zone coverage in the defensive end to more man on man. He was asking for more puck possession and playmaking. That takes practice, and that takes time. Vigneault had a full training camp and preseason, unlike Oates, who had only a week of camp and no preseason coming out of the lockout. But Vigneault hardly had ideal conditions.

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Brad Richards has been a bright spot after struggling last season. (USA Today)

The Rangers opened camp at home and played a couple of exhibitions nearby – at New Jersey, at Philadelphia. But even though they knew they would play their first nine regular-season games on the road while the Garden underwent the final phase of its billion-dollar renovation, the Rangers went out to Banff, Alberta. They played exhibitions at Calgary, at Edmonton, at Vancouver and in Las Vegas.

Then the regular season began – at Phoenix, at Los Angeles, at San Jose, at Anaheim, at St. Louis. Even excluding injuries from the equation, is it really that shocking the Rangers allowed 25 goals in those five games and went 1-4-0? They were running around in their end, with one guy trying to help another instead of trusting his teammates to do his job, leaving an opponent open in the process. They were turning over pucks too often.

“It shouldn’t have been a hard adjustment,” said defenseman Dan Girardi.

But it was.

“It’s just one of those things where we just couldn’t figure it out,” Girardi said. “It was just chaos.”

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They came home for a few days and settled down before hitting the road again, and they allowed eight goals and went 2-2-0 in their next four games – not great, especially considering a 4-0 loss at New Jersey, but trending in the right direction. The effort level improved Saturday night. The defensive coverage improved. The north-south puck management improved. The Rangers talked about their troubles in the past tense.

Now it’s about adding offense, getting healthy and getting right back where they started from, so they can move forward the way they were supposed to under Vigneault. They need Nash back. They need Callahan back. They need Hagelin back, and of course, they need Lundqvist back to his usual self. But more than anything, if Torts wore them out, if Torts ground them down, if AV is the answer, they need to prove it. They need to play that song from “Slap Shot” more often. They have 73 games – 89 percent of the season – left to do so.

“I certainly think we know it’s going to get better,” said defenseman Marc Staal. “It’s frustrating, and it sucks when you’re losing, and it’s hard to kind of see the light at the end of the tunnel. But I think we can see it in our improvement and the way we’re playing our games. We have a lot hockey left.”

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