Lacking an identity after 30 games in an 82-game season is cause for concern. Lacking an identity after 30 games in a 48-game season is cause for exhaustive self-introspection.
The Rangers’ 3-1 loss to the Panthers on Thursday night at the Garden was endemic of their 2013 campaign.
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“We did a lot of good things but it’s getting old,” Henrik Lundqvist said. “[Other] teams, they find ways to win. That’s what we’re lacking.”
The loss, coupled with the Devils’ 4-1 win over the Hurricanes, dropped the Rangers to ninth in the East. The Rangers have 18 games remaining this season.
There were periodic flashes of the skill and talent that led many to view the team a Stanley Cup contender, but the tenacity that marked the 2010-11 and 2011-12 editions was not readily apparent.
“Confused and lost,” said Brad Richards when asked to describe his feelings following the loss.
To make last night’s loss even more damning, the Rangers were facing the league’s worst team with rookie goaltender Jacob Markstrom making just his 17th career start.
Markstrom’s lone mistake was yielding Marian Gaborik’s ninth goal of the season with 3:48 left in regulation. Gaborik held off two Panthers as he barreled towards Markstrom before flipping a shot over the blocker and into the cage for his first goal since March 7 against the Islanders.
“We had a lot of chances and a lot of shots on net. We just have to put a few more in there. We were the better team but we just didn’t execute,” Gaborik said. “We have to stick with it.
“We talked about having to keep going to the same way and try to put as many shots as we can on him and some screens in front of him to create traffic. We did that but just didn’t execute.”
Coming off consecutive wins over Carolina and New Jersey, in which they routinely generated offensive chances, the Rangers were mostly unable to sustain time in the offensive zone despite outshooting the Panthers, 45-24.
“We’d be concerned if we weren’t getting the chances,” Ryan Callahan said. “We had  shots on net. You do that on a nightly basis, you get those chances on a nightly basis, you’re going to get more than one goal easily.”
But only if the Rangers begin to press the issue right from the start of games. The Rangers fell into Florida’s trap. They clogged the neutral zone and the middle of the ice, forcing the Rangers into playing an overly cautious game.
“Just can’t find a way to get that first [goal] early [that] kind of gives us momentum,” Dan Girardi said. “The start, again, kind of hurt us.
“Every other team seems to come out really hard and put us on our heels. We just need to find a way — first shift, second shift — just throw everything we have at them from the first couple shifts and create some momentum that way. [Maybe] we’ll get one right away, get the first goal. Just got to change something, figure something out.”
Brian Campbell’s power-play goal 8:21 into the first period opened the scoring. Scottie Upshaw’s even-strength goal 4:28 into the second period was the game-winner. Tomas Kopecky’s short-handed, empty-net goal with 44 seconds sealed the win.
Follow Rangers beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman.