The New York Rangers' home opener got off to an ominous start before the puck ever dropped Sunday night at Madison Square Garden, when Daniel Rodriguez took the ice to perform the national anthem in place of legendary anthem singer John Amirante, a fixture at Rangers games for more than three decades.
When Rodriguez emerged from the Zamboni tunnel, the Blueshirts faithful booed him loudly -- simply, it seemed, for not being the 77-year-old Amirante, who missed the game due to illness -- and it didn't take long for those boos to shift toward the home bench in a 6-3 loss that was effectively over after two periods.
The defeat dropped the Rangers, the presumptive Eastern Conference favorites, to 0-2 on the lockout-delayed campaign, and ordinarily, that wouldn't be cause for concern. After all, New York needed four games to get in the win column last season and ended up handily securing the No. 1 seed in the East with 109 regular-season points.
But with a 48-game season leaving teams racing to push their point total to the mid-to-upper 50s to secure a playoff spot and the margin for error being so much thinner, every game takes on an elevated level of importance. That wasn't lost on the New York players, who expressed concern, but perhaps not dismay, after the game.
"There's only 48 games, so every game means a little bit more," said Rangers captain Ryan Callahan, who scored his first goal of the season to knot the game at 1-1 with 10:05 left in the first period. "This isn't the start we wanted to get off to, but by no means -- there's no panic in here. We know the group we have in here, we know there's things we need to fix and correct, and I feel like we can do that."
The Rangers' home opener began to unravel early against a tough Pittsburgh squad that looks every bit like a Stanley Cup contender after a 2-0-0 start that also includes a win over the Philadelphia Flyers.
New York's Arron Asham and Pittsburgh's Tanner Glass started the game off with a fight two seconds into the first period, and a Brad Richards interference penalty gave the Pens a man advantage 35 seconds later. Pittsburgh capitalized on the power play and took a 1-0 lead just 1:48 into the game on a goal from James Neal, the first of two on the night for the Penguins' second-leading point man from last season.
After Callahan scored on a 5-on-3 advantage for the Rangers, Pittsburgh added two more first-period goals, one each from Tyler Kennedy and defenseman Matt Niskanen, to take a 3-1 lead into the first intermission. Pascal Dupuis beat Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist stick side off a pass from Evgeni Malkin to make the score 4-1 with 10:49 left in the second period, prompting Rangers coach John Tortorella to pull Lundqvist for backup Martin Biron.
"I was not going to keep him in there," Tortorella said afterward when asked why he pulled the 2012 Vezina Trophy finalist. "It wasn't him; I was not going to keep him in there with what was going on in front of him."
Neal's second goal of the season gave Pittsburgh a 5-1 lead before newcomers Taylor Pyatt and Rick Nash each scored their first goals as Rangers in the third. But a sloppy Callahan turnover led directly to an empty-net goal for Kris Letang, spoiling the New York comeback effort and the home debut for Nash, who is finally playing for a good team in a good market after spending nine years in Columbus with the Blue Jackets.
"I'd rather have the two points," Nash said afterward when asked about his first Rangers score. "It doesn't mean much. If it helped us win or helped us tie, then it would mean a lot, but I'd rather have the two points than the goal."
The 0-2-0 start isn't exactly disastrous for New York -- after all, the Flyers have also lost their first two games of the season, and no one is counting them out, either. But the fact that both losses came in litmus test-type games against contending Eastern Conference foes is, at the very least, troubling.
Last year, it took the Rangers almost a month to figure things out after a 3-3-3 start that included seven consecutive road games to begin the season, but they don't have that luxury this time around. With less than 60 percent of the usual schedule to work with, every injury has the potential to be that much more devastating, every kink needs to be worked out that much quicker and every loss means that much more.
"The only good thing is we're only four points out of first in the division," center Brad Richards said. "But it's going to come quick, and you 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 got to be corrected quickly. But I don't think there's anything out there that we can't correct. It's pretty much all plain and simple; it's just up to us if we want to buy into it. We can all do it, it's just when we decide to do it."
If the Rangers are to turn things around -- and, really, there's no reason to think they can't; it's still only two games we're talking about -- there are a few things they'll need to improve upon, and they'll need to do so quickly. They need to protect their goalie better and give him a chance, for one, and they must start getting the puck out of their own end. Pittsburgh maintained control for most of Sunday's game, and there was little New York could do about it.
The Rangers also have to stay out of the penalty box, especially early -- in Saturday's 3-1 loss to Boston, Carl Hagelin put himself in the pen for two minutes with an interference penalty 19 seconds in. And when they do have to serve time, the penalty kill needs to be more consistent. After nixing all seven Bruins power plays, New York allowed Pittsburgh to score two power play goals and also gave up another in a 4-on-4 situation.
"The effort and the execution weren't there," defenseman Marc Staal said. "The little passes, the details that get us out of our zone quickly weren't there. We were just a little disjointed and it took us a while to get the puck back, and when we did, we were too tired to make any plays with it."
New York could also benefit from a little more toughness. After the Asham-Glass fight to start the game, the Rangers allowed the Pens to bully them for most of the night, and Brooks Orpik put an exclamation mark on that point with a brutal, clean hit on Chris Kreider at the Rangers' blue line with 38.4 seconds left in the rout.
"That's a big problem with the club right now," Tortorella said of the hit on Kreider. "Maybe we need to get whacked around a little bit more to wake us up."
Of course, this one game, and that one hit, are no more a sign that the Rangers aren't tough than two losses are a sign that New York isn't the Stanley Cup contender we expected. But both situations need to be rectified sooner than later, or else this four-month race to the playoffs could prove more difficult than the Rangers ever anticipated.
"I think we got away a little bit from the way we were playing last year -- the hard-nosed style, in your face," Callahan said. "I think it starts with that and it trickles from there into our systems. Obviously, we expected our systems not to be perfect from the start, but at the same time, they need to be better than they are."
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