I’m old enough to remember when the Rangers got off to a bad start because Jacob Trueba was at least an equally bad choice to be captain.
Or is this a misinterpretation of the narrative?
“Oh, well, I can tell you the first two months were pretty grueling,” Trueba told The Post after the team’s prep work Wednesday for Thursday’s Garden showdown against the Big Bad Bruins. “It was mentally exhausting.”
Rangers weren’t playing well. Trouba had a problem with his right hand that prevented him from training for weeks. He wasn’t playing well at all. This may be an understatement.
“I wouldn’t use injury as an excuse, but it’s hard to lead when you’re not 100 percent, and it’s very hard to lead when you’re nowhere near your best,” said Trueba. “It all weighed on me. It got in my head. I was second-guessing everything I did. The fact that the team was having such a hard time made it even more difficult.”
The Rangers were 11-10-5 after being taken down by Chicago, the worst team in the league, on December 3rd. Things were in danger of being shattered into a million pieces. Trueba released his helmet and shouted, “Wake up!” to the bench in an emotional cry for help as he made his way off the ice after his second fight of the night, in the second period.
The third period wasn’t much better. And two nights later, the Blueshirts played aimlessly and poorly in the first two periods of their next game at The Garden. They trailed the Blues before scoring three goals in the third to win the game and snap out of a melee that could have brought another loss.
Suddenly, the Rangers are a good team again with a good captain.
Or is this a misinterpretation of the last novel?
“Not only in hockey, but in all the sports that I follow, people are quick to judge,” Mika Zibanejad said when the topic was brought up after practice on Wednesday. “But here we knew what kind of person and leader Jacob is because he’s the same guy who did the job last year before he got a ‘C’.”
“He’s just himself. There’s nothing fake about him. Everything you see is real. He leads by example. If he had a hard time earlier with his play, he never showed it the way he did in the room.”
“We respect it and respond to it.”
That December 5 win over the Blues set off a 14-3-2 start that the Rangers will go on to take on Thursday as the best team in the NHL. It’s a challenge the Blueshirts should covet after clawing their way out of the darkness they have been shrouded in for most of the first eight weeks of the season.
Despite this, there was no panic in those days. Trueba held his head while everything about him was losing his head and blaming him, and yes, that’s a paraphrased line from Rudyard Kipling. However, it was not just the captain. It was the lead group that included alternate captains Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, Artemy Panarin and Barclay Goudreau that kept the record straight.
“I’ve said this before, but we talked early on in the leadership group how we were going to face the expectations and adversity that we didn’t have last year, and we needed to be able to deal with that,” said Trueba. “I don’t think we were necessarily terrible as a team, but it was a tough period.
“But we managed to stay positive. We looked at it, and I looked at it, with the perspective that every team goes through a rough patch and we had ours early on. I think if we were going through that now, we’d be in the depths.
“I think we did a really good job as a team getting through that and coming out on the other side. We stuck together. I’m proud of the way we responded.”
Trueba’s play was also on the rise after being dropped to the third pair in a handful of games that coincided with the Chicago-St. Lewis experience in early December. He is healthy and has added his trademark physical when needed.
Yes, there is still the occasional hiccup, and head coach Gerard Gallant may want to increase the responsibility of right third pair Braden Schneider and minutes. This will have an effect on Tawba. But the captain’s rating is five over five plus minus even over 19 games (15 for, 15 for) after hitting -10 (15 for, 25 for) over his first 26 contests, according to NaturalStatTrick.
“We know who Jacob is and what he does for us,” Zibanijad said. “We always knew.”