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SportsColumnistsSteve Zipay

Rangers are a .500 team looking for so much more

Despite a six-game winning streak, the Blueshirts are still seeking an identity and momentum.

The Blue Jackets' Gabriel Carlsson gets called for

The Blue Jackets' Gabriel Carlsson gets called for holding as he grabs on to Rangers' Kevin Hayes during a game on Nov. 17, 2017 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Kirk Irwin

With a 9-9-2 record and 20 points after 20 games, the first quarter of the Rangers season has been bumpy, infuriatingly inconsistent and disappointing. The repeated emphasis during the pre-season was that a good start was essential. Didn’t happen, going 1-5-2 out of the gate.

The game-after-game eyeball test reveals an underachieving team that has had a favorable schedule and no serious injuries, but has yet to fire on all cylinders except for a six-game winning streak that created positive vibes before two straight losses on the road last week. Statistically, they are currently an under-.500 team: They are scoring 3.15 goals per game, but allowing 3.30; producing just over 32 shots on goal per game, surrendering just over 32 against.

Somehow, the Blueshirts, who have shown some resiliency, are within a couple points of a wild-card berth, and five from a playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division, but players and fans understand that a push in the next quarter of the season will be critical. “Every game is important when we haven’t had a great start,” Mats Zuccarello said after Friday’s 2-0 loss in Columbus.

Here’s a first-quarter report card:

GOALTENDING:

Henrik Lundqvist has been a workhorse, starting 17 of the 20 games, a pace that would have him start between 60 and 70 games, which would be the most starts he’s had since the 2010-11 season. Lundqvist, 35, will be in the nets again against Ottawa Sunday and although he says he’s healthy and motivated, the wear and tear could take a toll. To be sure, he’s lowered his goals-against-average to 2.98 and raised his save percentage to .908 and will have some time off when the Rangers play back-to-backs, with the next slated for Dec. 8th and 9th. With his recent improvements, Lundqvist earns a B for the quarter.

Ondrej Pavelec, who has made just three starts and two relief appearances, (1-3-0, 3.68, .886) gets an incomplete. Both have to perform at a higher level if the Rangers are to contend for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

FORWARDS

The depth at center since the summer trade of Derek Stepan to Arizona, which helped clear cap space to sign Kevin Shattenkirk, remains an issue that may eventually force a trade. Mika Zibanejad has stepped up as the No. 1 center with a team-leading 19 points, but Kevin Hayes (one goal in the last 11 games) needs to produce more than eight points so far as a second pivot. Free agent David Desharnais has not been the answer on the third line and although rookie Boo Nieves has brought speed and size and won his share of faceoffs in his recent spot on the fourth trio, you have to wonder if and when general manager Jeff Gorton will decide to pull the trigger on a trade to enhance the middle. Pavel Buchnevich is blossoming, but Mats Zuccarello (also just one goal in the last 11) needs to shoot more, Chris Kreider continues to be streaky, J.T. Miller is providing more assists than goals and Rick Nash is fourth in goals. That’s an overall C.

DEFENSE

Early on, lapses and sloppy play early in games and late in periods surely cost the Rangers a handful of points, because they’ve had to climb out of holes to try to salvage a point for a tie after 60 minutes. Ryan McDonagh competes every night, as does Brady Skjei, and the return of Brendan Smith to the starting on Friday after being a healthy scratch for six straight games bodes well. Offense-minded Kevin Shattenkirk can certainly move the puck, and Marc Staal, while no longer in his prime, can be a reliable stay-at-home defender. Nick Holden, who seems out of place on the first pair, and Steven Kampfer have filled in admirably, as the blueline has tightened in the last few weeks. But moving the puck up ice quickly to avoid forechecks remains a priority. Another C.

SPECIAL TEAMS

No complaints about the power-play units, especially the main quintet, which Shattenkirk has ably quarterbacked. Now in the top four in the NHL despite the 0-for-6 skid on the road trip, when coach Alain Vingeault said “we didn’t execute”. The penalty-kill has risen steadily to No. 13 in the league, compared to last season, when the Rangers finished 19th shorthanded. Getting into the top 10 couldn’t hurt. B.

COACHING/FRONT OFFICE

In his fifth season here, a proactive Alain Vigneault shuffled the deck for the first ten games, trying to find some chemistry with new defense pairs and no Jesper Fast, rehabbing from surgery for the first five games. Did the front office count too much on center Lias Andersson, the No. 7 overall draft pick, and defenseman Anthony DeAngelo to earn spots and contribute? Probably. Adam Cracknell, claimed off waivers, is now in Hartford. C.

QUICK HITS

n With a new practice facility now open for the Blackhawks, Thursday was probably the last Rangers “dress and drive” practice at Johnny’s Ice House West, a rink with a bar called “The Stanley Club” about a mile from the United Center where local squads skate. The Rangers arrived by bus in full gear, and rode back to United Center to shower and change afterward. Among the old-school motivational black-and-white signs on the walls: “Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference” and “When you lose, say little; when you win, say less.”

n Ty Ronning has scored in nine straight games and has 22 goals in 22 games for the WHL’s Vancouver Giants. The 5-9 right wing, a seventh round pick in 2016, also has 11 assists.

n Up next: The Senators, who eliminated the Rangers in the second round of the playoffs last spring, face the Blueshirts today at 7. Ottawa, which hosted the Coyotes on Saturday afternoon, came into the Arizona game with an 8-4-5 record. The Rangers are 7-4-2 at home.

HOCKEY METRICS

Corsi For Percentage (CF%) is a 5-on-5 metric that shows the percentage of shot attempts (on goal, misses and blocks) created by a team versus the total shot attempts when a player is on the ice. So if a player is on for six shot attempts in a game and the opponent has four, his CF% is 60. Anything over 50 is considered solid. As a team, the Rangers rank 22nd in the NHL at 48.18.

TOP 5

Mika Zibanejad 53.48

Ryan McDonagh 51.01

Pavel Buchnevich 53.10

Chris Kreider 49.89

Kevin Shattenkirk 49.50

BOTTOM 5

Marc Staal 46.27

Brendan Smith 46.11

Jimmy Vesey 45.12

Jesper Fast 44.69

David Desharnais 43.10

ROAD WARRIORS NO MORE?

With a 2-5 record away from home, the Rangers have an uphill climb to match their road marks during their last four seasons

2016-17 27-12-2

2015-16 19-17-5

2014-15 28-11-2

2013-14 25-14-2

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