RALEIGH, N.C. — Regarding the Rangers, whose best opening 40 minutes of the season were 20 minutes too few to get them over the finish line Wednesday in a Game 1 overtime loss to the Hurricanes.
1. The Rangers have talked all season about the need to play a complete 60 minutes. Rarely have they been able to do it. Rarely has there been a steady trajectory from the first shift to the last. At times there have been slow starts. At other times there have been bad second periods. Sometimes there have been third periods in which the Rangers have gone into a shell.
All teams face surges and momentum swings, even more so in the playoffs, when emotion becomes a constant companion. The Rangers seem to have an extremely difficult time identifying these quickly enough to cut them off quickly. Instead, it has been commonplace for them to go through stretches of 12, 15, 17 minutes or more in which they’re stuck in a ditch spinning their wheels.
That has been as much of a mark of this team as its resilience has been.
That’s what happened Wednesday, when two periods of structured, disciplined, intelligent play became undone almost in conjunction with the third period’s opening faceoff. Despite chasing the puck and the ’Canes while hemmed in their own zone or caught on neutral-zone transitions for just about the entire period, the Rangers were able to protect their 1-0 lead until the inevitable occurred. Carolina tied the score with 2:23 remaining in regulation and won it 3:12 into overtime.
“We kind of talked about this [Wednesday] night with a few guys,” Ryan Strome said following a team meeting Thursday in advance of Game 2, which will be Friday night. “It feels like we get on the ice, get out of our zone and flip it out and change. We don’t get any forecheck and we just kind of play on our heels.
“I think we have to do a better job of getting their first forechecker in more and get the first touch on pucks. I think sometimes what I see is that we get the puck out of the zone, we play pretty sound defense, but we’re not getting any pressure up the ice and so we’re on our heels.”
That’s a pretty fair analysis of the issue that has been nagging at the Rangers all season, but it does not address why the club has not been able to implement the solution. It is imperative it does so the remainder of this series, in which 40 minutes — even the best 40 minutes — is not going to be enough.
2. There is something so off about Artemi Panarin’s game that I’m just wondering if these playoffs will knock the ever-present smile off his face. Maybe Panarin is playing through an injury. Maybe, as Ron Duguay suggested on The Post’s “Up in the Blue Seats” podcast, he is just overthinking things.
Frank Vatrano’s game has gone in-and-out lately with him playing on the right side with Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad. I wouldn’t think head coach Gerard Gallant would flip Panarin and Vatrano on the road, where Carolina would simply send its checking line, centered by Jordan Staal, as the matchup to snuff out the club’s three biggest threats (allegedly) at once.
But if the Blueshirts are beaten in Game 2 while Panarin continues to play pedestrian hockey — almost the ultimate insult as applied to this world-class artist — Gallant could opt to make that change when the series swings to the Garden for Game 3 on Sunday.
3. It is pretty much agreed by acclamation that the Kids comprised the Rangers’ best line in Game 1. The ebullient Alexis Lafreniere-Filip Chytil-Kaapo Kakko unit scored the club’s lone goal, consistently pitched the puck in deep behind the defense if nothing was there on an entry and dominated its match against the Vincent Trocheck trio.
So then why would that line have received the third-most amount of ice time of the Blueshirts’ four units? As recorded by NaturalStatTrick, that unit got 9:43 while the Zibanejad line played 15:09, the Strome unit played 12:32 and the Kevin Rooney fourth line got 8:33 of ice.
Gallant did increase the unit’s time each period, from just over 3:00 in the first to a little over 4:00 in the second to nearly 5:30 in the third, so that might be something to monitor.
4. The Rangers were able to keep Carolina’s top six off the ice for faceoffs in the Blueshirts zone by sending the Zibanejad unit out to take eight of the 13 five-on-five draws in that end of the ice. The Staal checking unit was on for seven of them with the Vincent Trocheck line on for one early in the third period.