COLUMBUS, Ohio — Four games into the season, and this much is certain. The Rangers are missing chemistry and consistency.
Their eight defensemen have been mixed-and-matched by coach Alain Vigneault. Except for the success of first-liners Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich, forwards have been rearranged daily as well. The only things that are working for the Rangers (1-3) are the power play, with five of the team’s 10 goals, and the resiliency shown in coming back from early deficits to tie the score.
The only other constant presence has been Henrik Lundqvist, who will start his fifth straight Friday against the Blue Jackets (2-1). His play has ranged from a 34-save shutout to being pulled after allowing five goals in less than 20 minutes in Toronto, and he is carrying a sub-par 3.05 goals-against-average and .898 save percentage.
“Like Kevin, we’re a work in progress,” Vigneault said when asked about prized free-agent defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who has brought a spark to the power play, but is adjusting to the Rangers’ five-on-five play.
Sitting in last place in the Metropolitan Division and with a lineup in flux is not the way Vigneault would have scripted an early-season road game against the talented Blue Jackets. When asked about the shuffles in practice on Thursday, Vigneault said: “Which day have I not so far?”
The Blueshirts won’t have a morning skate, so Thursday’s practice lineup will stick: Defenseman Ryan McDonagh was back on his natural left side with latest partner Nick Holden; Marc Staal was paired with Shattenkirk, and Brady Skjei skated with Brendan Smith, a healthy scratch for the last two games. “If I had a happy player sitting out, I’d question myself on that player,” said Vigneault. “I see him in our top D, but he’s got to play accordingly and I’m sure he knows that . . . Smitty and Brady had some good chemistry last year. When we have Mac on the right side, we lose a little bit of him being able to jump up in the play, keep pucks in the offensive zone.”
The Kreider-Zibanejad-Buchnevich trio was intact but the other lines were jumbled. J.T. Miller, who had played center for two games, was back on the wing, with former fourth-line center David Desharnais and Jimmy Vesey. “J.T. is more effective on the wing,” Vigneault said. “I know he likes wing better, he can get in on the forecheck, go to the net, and we need him playing to his strength.” Rick Nash and Mats Zuccarello, who started the season with rookie center Filip Chytil (now in Hartford) for two games, were with Kevin Hayes. And Paul Carey, a winger for four games, centered Michael Grabner and Adam Cracknell, who had played one game after being claimed off waivers from Dallas. The chess pieces have moved again.