Where's New York? Time to send out search party to find 'real' Rangers

The New York Rangers had come out flat, again. They had struggled offensively, again. They had lost, again. As coach John Tortorella stood in front of the MSG backdrop Saturday after a 3-0 defeat in Pittsburgh, there was tension, at first.

Would he storm off in seconds? Would he rip into his top players the way he had Tuesday night after a 3-1 defeat in Buffalo, when he said he couldn’t have been “more disgusted and disappointed” with the way they played?

No. He was calm, even upbeat. He said the Rangers had “good people,” repeatedly. He pointed out that although they were on a three-game losing streak, they had been on a four-game winning streak not long ago and could make up ground with a good week.

“You can see it with some of our top guys. They don’t have a lot of confidence,” Tortorella said. “From a coaching point of view, the biggest thing for us is to stay together as a club here and try to find our way.”

Ranting and raving won’t do any good anymore. The Rangers have been beaten down enough. What they need now is to be built up. If the biggest thing is sticking together, that means the biggest danger is splitting apart.

It might be premature to say that the Rangers have tuned out Tortorella. They finished first in the East and went to the conference final under him last season. They have played only 27 games since, and they are struggling for many reasons. Some have been out of Tortorella’s control.

[Related: Can Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards rebound for the Rangers?]

But it is not a stretch to say that Tortorella’s abrasive approach is easier to take when things are going well, that benching guys and (bleeping) about them publicly can grow old, and that the Rangers are in a fragile state of mind at a delicate point.

They might not make the playoffs, let alone win the Stanley Cup as some people – like, ahem, me – predicted. Though they’re still a top defensive team, they’re one of the worst offensive teams in the league. They’re scoring even less than they did last season, despite the addition of Rick Nash. Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik have not produced. They don’t have the depth or chemistry they once did.

Most alarming of all, they too often play without energy, without passion, without desperation, despite the situation.

Where is the team that won by outworking everyone else, by being a pain to play against? Where is the team that was as tough mentally as it was physically? Where is the identity the Rangers have spent years developing?

“I don’t know why we’re not playing the same way we did last year,” said defenseman Dan Girardi. “We’re just not playing like ourselves.”

“We’ve had it in spurts,” said captain Ryan Callahan. “But it definitely hasn’t been consistent where we need it.”

In terms of structure? Effort?

“Everything,” Callahan said. “An identity is everything together – from structure to effort to battle level. We’ve shown signs of it that we can do it. It’s a matter of doing it consistently.”

What’s missing?

“I wish I had that answer,” Callahan said. “I don’t know right now.”

There are lots of theories:

– The Rangers just aren’t that good. They were on the bubble in their first two full years under Tortorella, just missing the postseason in 2009-10, just making it in 2010-11. Most everything went right for them last season when they put up 109 points and won two seven-game, coin-flip playoff series. Now they’re right back on the bubble, and by one measure, that’s right where they should be. They’re 3-10-1 against the top eight in the East, 10-2-1 against the rest.

– They lost too much up front. They gave up Artem Anisimov and Brandon Dubinsky in the Nash deal, and they let Ruslan Fedotenko, Brandon Prust and John Mitchell leave in free agency. All of those decisions made sense individually, but collectively they turned strengths – depth and chemistry – into weaknesses.

– Nash has lived up to expectations, but too many returnees have not. It goes beyond even Richards and Gaborik. Brian Boyle has been so bad that he has been a healthy scratch four times. Chris Kreider, the rookie sensation in the playoffs last year, is in the minors. It doesn’t help that Girardi is playing through a leg injury and Marc Staal is out after taking a puck in the face. Henrik Lundqvist, though still good, hasn’t played at the same level he did last season when he won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender.

– The lockout hurt. Every team had one week of training camp and no preseason games. Every team has had a compressed schedule. But that has affected some more than others. At their best, the Rangers play a grueling style, one that is hard to sustain playing night after night. They need to practice to develop chemistry, and they haven’t had many chances to practice this season. They don’t have many games to get out of this funk, either.

“It’s definitely magnified,” Callahan said. “You go through these stretches in an 82-game schedule, sometimes you have time to work it out. But with this schedule you don’t. You’ve got to try to fix it as soon as possible.”

The Rangers still have a chance. General manager Glen Sather needs to be active before the April 3 trade deadline, at least to replenish some of the depth he lost in the off-season. Tortorella needs to loosen up and loosen the reins a bit. Sometimes less is more, especially with stars like Richards and Gaborik. As he said, you can try to manufacture goals – firing shots, getting guys to the net. But you can’t teach skill.

“We try to stay out of the way offensively – and especially now,” Tortorella said. “I am not going to have a lot of conversations regarding that, because I think our guys … We have good offensive people. I think they know what they have to do. I just think some good things have to happen to them so they gain some confidence.”

If the Rangers get their game together, crack the top eight and get the right matchups, who’s to say they couldn’t win another coin flip or two?

If they fail to make the playoffs, they will have to be careful evaluating their team because of the screwy schedule, like every other team in the league. But they will have to take a hard look at Tortorella if the players continue to give listless efforts, and they will have to take a hard look at their personnel if they can’t generate offense.

“It comes down to winning,” Lundqvist said. “We need to win, and we need to build confidence that way. Enough with excuses. We just have to be better.”

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