Rangers don’t have same time to fix problems as last year’s team

Thirteen games into last season, the Rangers were in a state of disarray. They were 7-3-3, fine, but the record was sandcastle-type stuff, built almost entirely on Igor Shesterkin’s otherworldly work in net.

Indeed, the Blueshirts’ 13th game of 2021-22 was a 4-3 win over the Panthers at the Garden on November 8, 2021, in which many of the warts of the early season were revealed. Shesterkin was surrounded, his team outscored 45-18 overall and 17-3 in the third period. In addition, the Puddy Tats ranted and lashed out at the netminder with impunity and no meaningful response.

“It’s not like we didn’t face some adversity last year,” Mika Zibanejad told The Post on Monday. “I think we were worse at this time.”

Surprisingly, though, the Blues had a three-day layoff after that Florida game that allowed coach Gerald Gallant to put his players through remedial work in an abbreviated Training II camp. When they came out of the lab, they were a tougher, more disciplined team, had changed their defensive zone system and went on a 10-1 run to essentially lock up a playoff spot by the first week of December .

It was a reset. A necessary reset.

This year, after a heartbreaking 3-2 overtime loss to the Red Wings on Sunday, it left the Rangers 6-4-3 but 3-3-3 in the final nine and put their leaders on the wrong end of a stunning (for that) public reprimand from the coach, there was not such a favorable break in the action.

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Instead, the Rangers took on the wild Islanders at the Garden on Tuesday and then hit the road for Nashville and Detroit on Thursday and Saturday. Rangers will have to create an identity on the fly.

Mika Zibanejad during the Rangers game against the Red Wings on November 6, 2022.
Mika Zibanejad during the Rangers game against the Red Wings on November 6, 2022.
Corey Sipkin/ NY Post

“We’re still trying to figure out who we are,” K’Andre Miller told The Post. “We have lost some personnel from last year’s team. It will take time.

“We have boys and young boys who are in different positions of responsibility. We need to clean up our game. I certainly don’t detect any panic. We’re looking to step up to our game.”

It has been said many times that the Rangers would play this season below the expectations created by last season’s run to the conference finals. But in that charge were top players Ryan Strome, Frank Vatrano and Andrew Copp and third baseman Justin Braun. They are all gone.

Not that you should cry for them, but this group of players is measuring up to that. This should not have stolen from anyone. But it depends on the Rangers, who entered the season as the hunted rather than the hunters — and without a Stanley Cup to warrant being a target.

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“It’s definitely a different situation,” Zibanejad said. “There weren’t many expectations last year. Maybe the teams overlooked us. But this year, every team in the league looks at us a little differently.

“There is pressure, but this should not be negative. I am confident that we can handle this. It’s not that we don’t play well — the first period against Detroit was great — but we need to do it on a more consistent basis.

“We continued to build last year. Here we are now. That’s what we have to do, I think everyone expects a little bit more of themselves.”

Copp, Vatrano and Braun arrived around the trade deadline last season when general manager Chris Drury had ample cap space. At this point, the Rangers — still holding the 23-man roster limit — project to have about $765,500 to work with at the deadline, according to CapFriendly.

Gerard Gallant on the Rangers bench on May 13, 2022.
Gerard Gallant on the Rangers bench on May 13, 2022.
AP

In other words, there is no point in waiting for reinforcements. The cavalry is already here.

That, of course, features Zibanejad, who leads the team with seven goals and is on pace to equal a sweet 43-goal season. Six of the tallies had come on the power play, including a sweet-spot one-timer that he sent home Sunday. One was scored during the shorthand skate.

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That means none had come five-on-five in 173:39 of ice time.

Zibanejad almost burst out laughing when, a few minutes into our conversation on Tuesday, I asked him if that bothers him.

“It’s not funny, but I knew you’d ask that,” he said. “I have been waiting for this question.

“Of course I want to score. I think I’ve been in the position and had enough good chances that I should have one by now. But it would be much worse if I had no goals at all.

“You go through practice, but one of the things I learned during the playoffs is you can’t get hung up on things,” said the 29-year-old Swede, who is tied for the league PPG lead with Connor McDavid. “I’m working hard, I’m looking to create more attacks, but it’s not just about five-on-five.

“When they put me on the power play, I’m going to keep shooting.”

This is a formula that has worked. The Rangers – this year’s Rangers – need to find a formula that works for them.

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