Beyond all logic, the Rangers are putting on a happy face
Updated: October 19, 2007, 2:51 PM ETBy Scott Burnside | ESPN.com
ATLANTA -- And now for a brief visit to the edge of reason.When the New York Rangers add two talented, veteran centers in Scott Gomez and Chris Drury in the offseason to a lineup that already boasts multiple Stanley Cup winners Jaromir Jagr and Brendan Shanahan and the best young goalie in the game in Henrik Lundqvist, reason tells you, emphatically even, that this is going to be a good hockey team. Maybe even a Stanley Cup team. And yet after dropping a 5-3 decision to the previously winless Atlanta Thrashers on Thursday night -- a Thrashers team so desperate, so discombobulated, it fired coach Bob Hartley the day before -- the Rangers are a scant two points better than the Thrashers with a 2-4 record. Indeed, after the worst outing for the Rangers in this young season, the two teams share a number of similarities, not the least of which is being dead last in their respective divisions and a rather uncomfortable closeness at the very bottom of the Eastern Conference. But if the standings suggest a story of two teams in dire straits, the attitude in the New York Rangers' dressing room reflects an entirely different story. Perhaps that attitude is misguided or perhaps it merely reflects what most hockey people believe -- that this New York Rangers team is far too good to be this bad. "I don't think this team is discouraged. To me the makeup of this team is not discouraged, it's not frustrated, it's not packing it in or turning on each other or going separate ways. I really do feel that the resolve is determined to get this right," said Shanahan, who scored his first goal of the season late in the third period after the Thrashers had built leads of 4-0 and 5-1. "It's too good of a group and I don't mean that just talentwise, I mean peoplewise it's too good of a group and I truly believe that the group will work its way through it," Shanahan added. The Rangers' unpredictably slow start is proof once again you cannot make chemistry or assume that it is created simply by slapping a sweater on players, no matter how talented, no matter how well-intentioned. The game is not a math formula and in the case of Drury and Gomez, one plus one doesn't necessarily add up to two unless, of course, you're counting the paltry number of Rangers wins. "We have to realize that 0-0 after the first period is probably a victory for us. Going into the third period, if you're tied or winning, you're doing a good job," coach Tom Renney explained after the game. "But we have to understand you build a game and it doesn't happen in the first 10 minutes. And I think what's happening right now is that we want so badly to get winning and feel good about our effort that we sort of forget that process." Did Renney think there was an element in the dressing room of players expecting things to fall into place simply because Drury and Gomez happened to drop into the mix as opposed to having good things happen by more traditional means, such as hard work? "I think that's sort of inevitable," he said. Renney talked before the game about chemistry being akin to "trying to get the hand in the glove." "You don't want to force-feed [the issue]," he added. "You sort of have to leave them to their own devices. We've got to let them sort it out." But at 2-4 with only 13 goals to their credit, the question facing Renney and the Rangers is: When does patience bleed into simply being adrift? Already Renney has dramatically revamped the team's offensive look a couple of times. Gomez, one of the game's most gifted playmakers, is on his second go-round playing with Jagr. Thursday's performance did little to suggest this is magic in the making as the Rangers failed to score at even strength and have yet to win a game in which they gave up the first goal. Shanahan spent most of the night playing with Martin Straka and Blair Betts while Drury, once penciled in as Shanahan's pivot, played with Petr Prucha and Ryan Callahan. Drury added two power-play assists Thursday but that forward combination has combined for only two goals through the team's first six games. If there is one thing that has characterized the Rangers' play, it is an uncharacteristic tentativeness. There is a tendency to overthink, to over-pass. They entered the game 26th in the league on the power play -- a short jump above the Thrashers, who began the night with the 28th-ranked power-play unit (although the teams did combine for five power-play goals and one shorthanded marker on the night). Lundqvist, who was victimized by shoddy defense throughout the evening, suggested maybe his team needs to take more chances, play with a little more abandon. Certainly last season's squad, the one that swept the Thrashers in the playoffs and pushed the Buffalo Sabres to six games in the second round, appeared to be much more aggressive in terms of its forecheck and creating chances. Still, the Rangers entered Thursday's game with the second-most shots per game in the league, averaging 35 per game and adding 36 more in the loss to Atlanta. "We've got some guys in there that have gone through this before. We know the potential. We've just got to keep working hard," Gomez said after the game. "I'm sure everyone outside of this room is laughing at us, but we're going to be all right," the longtime Devil said. If the Thrashers, who won with GM Don Waddell behind the bench, have a long climb, mentally, to get back in this still-young season, the Rangers' mental climb seems much shorter given the accomplishments of their lineup. As for the angst that continues to percolate among the Rangers' faithful, most of whom were expecting the team to blaze a path out of the gate, Gomez chuckled. "It's too early. But that's what New York's all about. That's what makes it hockey. That's the fun part," he said. When you're 2-4 and resting rather uncomfortably in 14th place in the conference, fun might be a bit of a relative term. Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.