Rangers midseason report card

Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist stops a shot on

Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist stops a shot on goal against the San Jose Sharks during the first period. (Oct. 8, 2013) (Credit: AP)

Steve Zipay

Newsday columnist Steve Zipay Steve Zipay

Steve Zipay is an award-winning journalist who has covered events

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At 18-19-2 and out of the playoffs if the season ended today, it's tough to give the Rangers an overall grade higher than a C-minus. The team's two stars, Henrik Lundqvist and Rick Nash, have underachieved this season. The defense has looked scrambly at critical times and the club has produced 88 goals in 39 games, 27th in the NHL. The saving grace, if that's the appropriate term, is that in the sub-par Metropolitan Division, which is the NHL's version of the NBA's Atlantic Division, the Rangers are a bubble team. Overall Grade: C-

GOALTENDING: B- Where would the Blueshirts be without Cam Talbot (8-3, 1.72 goals-against average, .936 save percentage)? Compared to Talbot's Grade A cool, calm and collected performances, Henrik Lundqvist, a five-time Vezina Trophy finalist, who will be the highest-paid netminder in the league starting in July, has been uncharacteristically jittery, surrendering early goals, losing focus, playing without much confidence and unable to make the big save when needed since October. That has to change or the Rangers are sunk.

COACHING: C After John Tortorella's oft-degrading and shrill tone, Alain Vigneault has lowered the volume, and is adjusting to hockey in New York without the skill sets of the Sedin twins and Ryan Kesler and some productive Canucks defensemen. Vigneault, who has been mostly encouraging with his players in public, is trying to come to grips with a roster he inherited from general manager Glen Sather. A brutal West Coast road trip to kick off the season certainly was a setback to installing his short-passing, quicker-paced system. To his credit, Vigneault, who calls every line change during games, has used his benchings well, especially with Mats Zuccarello and Benoit Pouliot, who have surged since. Vigneault tends to favor veterans, and must get more out of them for a postseason berth.

FORWARDS: C- Rick Nash, who missed significant time with a concussion, is fighting it offensively and defensively, with just six goals in 22 games and one in the last 10. Centers Brad Richards (no goals in the last nine games), Derek Stepan (two in the last 16) and Derick Brassard (one in the last 12) have been wildly inconsistent. Hard-luck captain Ryan Callahan has been unable to stay healthy and already has missed 14 games. On the positive side, Chris Kreider's nine goals and 12 assists in 32 games have put him in the rookie-of-the-year conversation, Zuccarello (25 points) is playing with grit and purpose and at $1.1 million has been a bargain. Speedy Carl Hagelin, who missed the first 10 games of the season recovering from shoulder surgery, has nine goals and been increasingly dangerous. There has been alarmingly little finish from the second-tier players.

DEFENSE: C No. 1 blueliner Ryan McDonagh's game has grown by leaps and bounds at both ends of the ice, but Michael Del Zotto, who seems lost at times, has continued to slide. Once projected as a power-play QB, he is 2-5-7 in 30 games and is on the trading block. Reliable Marc Staal (who has missed the last nine games with a concussion) and Dan Girardi, who always plays with heart, should be better. Anton Stralman has not produced and John Moore is learning his role as a fifth or six defenseman. In the offseason, Sather spent almost $2.2 million on Justin Falk and AHLers Arron Johnson and Danny Syvret -- it might have been prudent to turn that into one established blueliner.

SPECIAL TEAMS: B- Credit the assistant coaches. Under Ulf Samuelsson, the penalty-kill is tied for sixth in the league at 85.1 and Dominic Moore is adding value in the faceoff circle and along the boards. The power play, at 18.9 percent, is sixth in the East and 11th overall under Scott Arniel.

KEYS TO SECOND HALF: By fumbling the longest homestand in team history, going 3-4-2, the Rangers will have to excel in their remaining games, including eight of the final 13 on the road. Every point could be critical. "We've put ourselves in the position where it's going to be a dogfight," Richards said. Nash and Lundqvist need to return to form fast. And before the trade deadline, Sather needs to acquire a second or third-line forward with size and hands, and a quality righthanded defenseman with some snarl, because the well is dry in Hartford.

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