After strong start, Rangers facing injuries and first skid
New York Rangers' Ryan McDonagh, left, tries to knock the puck away from Columbus Blue Jackets' Nick Foligno during the second period of an NHL hockey game Friday, Nov. 18, 2016, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)
NEW YORK (AP) Two weeks ago, the New York Rangers were rolling along, playing nearly unbeatable hockey and seemingly scoring goals at will.
Now, they're facing some adversity with a pair of key injuries and their first losing streak of the season.
The Rangers won 10 of their first 13 to move into first place in the Metropolitan Division while averaging a league-leading 4.23 goals per game. They had won five straight, scoring at least five in each victory.
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Since then, the Rangers have totaled 21 goals – including seven in a win at Vancouver last Tuesday – while going 3-2-1 over the last six. They've followed that season-high scoring outburst with their first back-to-back losses, 4-2 at Columbus last Friday and 3-2 in a shootout at home against Florida on Sunday night.
Now the first-place Rangers start a home-and home series at the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins – just one point back in the Metropolitan – on Monday night.
New York captain Ryan McDonagh believes the team needs to attack the net and distract the opposing goalie to improve its scoring chances.
''Try to get on the inside a little bit more, take away the goalie's eyes and hopefully get some rebound goals, deflection goals and make it a little bit tougher on the goalie,'' he said. ''Both nights the past two, (the goalie has) seen a lot of the pucks and that's a big difference there.''
Center Derek Stepan agreed with that assessment.
''Everyone is going to tell you that you have to get pucks and bodies to the net, you have to get screens,'' he said. ''Goaltenders are too good nowadays, (if) they see the puck they are going to make the save.''
During their strong start, the Rangers were rolling out four lines with a mix of speed and skill. They were getting contributions throughout the lineup, led by speedy free-agent addition Michael Grabner (11 goals). J.T. Miller leads the team with 17 points, and McDonagh and fellow defenseman Brady Skjei are tops with 11 assists each.
Even though the output has slowed, they still began the week leading the NHL with 76 goals – 16 more than the next-closest team – and are the only team in the league with 14 players with 10 or more points. And of their 13 wins, eight have been by three or more goals.
Though the Rangers got a point in the latest loss, the first time going beyond regulation this season, and moved into sole possession of first place in the division, that was no consolation to goalie Henrik Lundqvist.
''A point is always a point (but) we were looking to get two,'' he said.
The Rangers' scoring dip has been exacerbated by the loss of two key forwards in the last week. First, rookie right wing Pavel Buchnevich (four goals and four assists in 10 games) has missed the last four games due to back spasms and is out indefinitely. Then center Mika Zibanejad (four goals, 10 assists) broke his left leg sliding into the end boards early in overtime Sunday night. He's expected to be out six to eight weeks.
''Every team's got injuries and we don't expect to be any different than anybody else,'' coach Alain Vigneault said. ''Every coach says in these moments it's an opportunity for somebody else to get more ice time, and we're confident whoever we decide to put in that spot will do the job for us.''
Vigneault didn't expect to call anyone up from AHL Hartford right away to fill the void, pointing to the team's ''12 healthy forwards'' on the roster.
''We've got some options there in the middle with Josh (Jooris) and (Brandon) Pirri that play in the middle, and Oscar (Lindberg) obviously,'' he said.
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