"Confused and lost."
That was Brad Richards after Thursday night's 3-1 loss to the Panthers, although it's not immediately clear whether he's talking about himself or about the team in general. It's an apt description for both, so we might as well just let it stand for everything.
The Rangers had won two straight games and looked as good as they have in weeks in their win over the Devils earlier this week, raising hope that the team had finally found a groove after scuffling their way through the first two-plus months of the season. Those hopes died an ugly death at the Garden on Thursday.
Florida is the worst team in the league and they were playing without half their optimal lineup because of injuries, yet the Rangers did not approach them like a wounded bit of prey that's quickly snatched up in the jaws of a predator. Instead, they indulged the worst angels of their nature.
They sat back on their heels to start the game, allowing the Panthers to carry the pace of the game and establish themselves without so much as a whiff of pushback from the home side. It's clear that this year's Rangers team is never going to have the edge of last year's group, a group that would throw a check, a punch or an elbow in the face of an onslaught just to make sure the opponents knew it wasn't going to be an easy night.
If you're not going to play with that kind of edge, you'd better be filling up the nets on a regular basis and that's not something the Rangers have done this year. They took a ton of shots on Thursday night, but 45 shots and another 20-odd attempts don't mean a thing if they come without any more of an idea than just pushing the puck in the general direction of the net.
Rick Nash and Marian Gaborik hooked up for the only goal of the evening, but the rest of the night was a series of banal offensive approaches that never came close to overwhelming the Panthers defense. There's something to be said for getting the puck on net, but something more to be said for putting it on net as the result of puck movement that creates real scoring opportunities.
John Tortorella's got his work cut out for him the rest of the way with this group, because it's hard to consistently win games in the NHL when you lack both spine and skill. At this point in the year, it's hard to keep feeling that things are about to gel for a team that follows every bright spot with a descent deep into the hockey netherworld.