LOS ANGELES — The Rangers are a defensive team now, and there’s no need to look further than Rick Nash to find the explanation why.
There was a time, not all that long ago, when it would have been a little surprising to hear just how much Nash cares about the penalty kill, and how much he personally identifies with its success and failure. But there he was Sunday night at Staples Center, feeling individually downtrodden after the Kings scored three straight power-play goals in the second period en route to a 4-2 victory.
It was the Blueshirts’ second straight loss to start this four-game western road trip, which took a brief pause Monday for an off day before returning to action Tuesday in Anaheim and concluding Thursday up in San Jose.
Just before they were preparing to leave home, the Rangers’ penalty kill was ranked second in the league. They then gave up two to the Sabres on Thursday night at the Garden, and after stopping the one chance the Avalanche had in Denver on Saturday afternoon, they just fell apart against the Kings.
“It’s something that I’m really proud of,” Nash had said Sunday night, “our rank before these last three games here.”
They had fallen back to 12th in the league (82.1 percent) before league play Monday night, which was quite the precipitous fall in such a short period of time. But that’s how the NHL is working this year, with such overwhelming parity that the smallest drop in performance can send a team spiraling down the standings.
The Rangers know that, and they understand that their hold on the second wild-card spot Monday afternoon was tenuous at best. They also understand it’s going to be an uphill climb while dealing with long-term injuries to Kevin Shattenkirk and Chris Kreider, which make the smaller injuries more impactful — like those that recently resulted in absences from Michael Grabner and Marc Staal. Both returned Sunday, while Kevin Hayes has remained out for five straight with his leg contusion.
So that has led coach Alain Vigneault toward a small change in focus. He is getting less offensive production than in years past, with the team averaging 2.94 goals per game this season, ranking 13th in the league, compared to being in the top seven in each of the previous three seasons. But goalie Henrik Lundqvist has been terrific, even as he has faced the second-most shots in the league behind just Toronto’s Frederik Andersen.
That has made Vigneault look for the Rangers to focus defensively first, which might have been a floating idea at times in the past but was never so crucial to their success as it is now.
“What I’ve said 1,000 times, we need to play the right way,” Vigneault said before Sunday’s game. “For me and our group, the focus is going to be on defensive first. We need to play a strong defensive game. Thought [Saturday in Denver] we were pretty good in that area. From playing a strong defensive game, we should get some offensive opportunities.”
That is also the way Nash thinks — that playing a sound 200-foot game is going to lead to his offensive opportunities, which will eventually start going in. It’s true that the 33-year-old has always been a streaky scorer as he plays in the 15th season of his exemplary career. He also knows that the Rangers need him to score, and there was no coincidence that his back-to-back two-goal games at the Garden last week were also two wins against the Flyers and Sabres. Nash’s 13 goals in 48 games is tied for third-most on the team.
But these are now the defensive Rangers, playing that tight-checking five-on-five style. And when a penalty kill comes up, they need to keep the opposition off the board.
Because the margin for error is very little. Nash knows it, Vigneault knows it, and this is the reality they live in as they try to keep pace in a speeding postseason race.