GREENBURGH, N.Y. - Four games into the season, and the heat is on. That's the state of the desperate Rangers (1-3), even though they are facing the winless Carolina Hurricanes Thursday night.
"There's a lot of pressure on us [Thursday]," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said after practice Wednesday. "We haven't won at home yet. I'm expecting us to be really focused and energized and well-prepared for a really tough game."
Vigneault's squad ranks 29th of 30 in goals against, averaging 4.75 per game. "Way too many turnovers for our defense group right now," he said. "As a whole, our group is really playing under par."
Defenseman Michael Kostka, who committed two egregious giveaways around the net that led to Islanders goals in Tuesday's 6-3 loss, will be replaced by Matt Hunwick, who played in the Rangers' losses last weekend to the Blue Jackets and Maple Leafs.
But Vigneault also pointed the finger at the veterans on the blue line. "Marc [Staal] has to play better. He hasn't been the Marc Staal that I saw last year when we were winning games. I can say the same thing for Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi and the rest of the group. It's not just Marc." Girardi is a minus-4, McDonagh is minus-3 and Staal is minus-2.
To be fair, top center Derek Stepan and top-four defenseman Dan Boyle are sidelined with injuries, and the coaches are trying to work youngsters (J.T. Miller, Jesper Fast, Kevin Hayes, Anthony Duclair) and arrivals from other teams (Kostka, Hunwick, Tanner Glass, Lee Stempniak, Ryan Malone) into the defensive system, which requires quick puck support and short passes.
The Rangers have played well in stretches but have yet to put together a strong 60 minutes.
"The first 40 minutes [Tuesday] we were on the same page. It was one of our best offensive games as a team [with 75 attempted shots]," said Derick Brassard, who has two goals. "We had some letdowns and that really killed us. We have to be better as a unit, and it starts [Thursday night]."
Notes & quotes: Special teams are sagging. The power play is 0-for-11, ahead of just Montreal (0-for-14) and Colorado (0-for-13) in futility. And after a 9-for-9 penalty-kill stretch on the road, opponents have scored three times on their last eight power plays . . . Stepan (fractured fibula) is on track to make his return in November after sitting out the requisite 10 games on long-term injured reserve. "He's swimming as part of his rehab," Vigneault said. Stepan's first game likely will be Nov. 3 when the Rangers host St. Louis . . . Henrik Lundqvist, with a wildly atypical 5.42 GAA and .816 save percentage, will start against the Hurricanes (0-2-1), who are missing injured centers Eric Staal and Jordan Staal, Marc's brothers.