Special teams finally special for the New York Rangers

Find the nearest storm cellar! Run to a fallout shelter!! Prepare for chaos, the apocalypse is nigh. Special teams are clicking for the New York Rangers.

An overreaction? Maybe, but wouldn’t you be distressed if the sun set last night in the east and rose this morning in the west? Wouldn’t you question what was wrong with the universe? There aren’t many reliable facts of life, but one supremely dependable notion is this: the special teams for the New York Rangers must be dreadful (especially the power play.)

And now that’s been thrown all out of kilter. So be careful out there today, especially down near MSG. But in the meantime, enjoy the turmoil as the earth turns upside down. Take it in with reverence, like a perfect storm. For the first time in a long time, special teams are actually propelling the Blueshirts.

Derick Brassard has been instrumental to the Rangers’ power play success.

Historically – since the Tom Renney years, at least – the team’s penalty kill has been good. But not since that charmed 2005-06 season has the power play been a dynamic sidekick. In the seven seasons since then, special teams for the Rangers have taken one step back for every step forward: a great penalty kill neutralized by a punchless power play.

Then last season, it all fell apart. The power play met its typically awful standard, while the penalty kill went tumbling down the charts. After ranking inside the league’s top 10 each of the previous five seasons, the man down unit, lacking that toughness, that “stiffness” as John Tortorella called it, fell to 15th in 2013. Suddenly the counterbalancing effect of a stifling penalty kill was gone, and the Rangers ended up one of the worst special teams clubs in the NHL.

And so entered Alain Vigneault last spring, whose teams in Vancouver were known for their exploits on the power play. (Naturally, one of the first questions thrown Vigneault’s way in his introductory press conference was the state of the Rangers’ power play. He laughed, as if he knew the inquiry were coming, and promised to cross that bridge when he got to it.) But the task was more squarely on the shoulders of associate coach Scott Arniel, the man charged with overseeing the power play.

Arniel introduced a 1-3-1 structure in training camp, and the team has confidently grown into it. They’ve hit snags along the way, struggling mightily to score through most of December, but the puck movement at least, the fluidity, has always been there. Even while mired in a 2/19 slide last month, the power play was generating scoring chances.

Then the team returned from the Holiday Break and pucks started going in. Since a 3-2 loss at Washington on December 27, the power play is 9/26, good for a conversion rate of 35 percent. Another power play goal last night against Dallas made it nine out of the past 12 games that the Rangers have scored on the man advantage. They are now up to 6th in the league.

The latest contributor was Derick Brassard, who redirected a perfect pass from Mats Zuccarello between the circles to beat Kari Lehtonen over the shoulder. While Benoit Pouliot was setting a screen in front, Rick Nash, Derek Stepan and power play guru Ryan Callahan were watching from the bench. Indeed, the top unit these days is the team’s third line, complemented by Brad Richards and Ryan McDonagh.

What a testament to Arniel, who, like Herb Brooks, seems not to be looking for the best players, but the right ones. In Brassard, Zuccarello and Pouliot he has found them – Zuccarello leads the team in power play points (15) while Brassard and Pouliot share the team lead in power play goals (5 each). And recently, it’s these three that have taken the ice ahead of Nash, Stepan and Callahan, a tribute to Vigneault’s willingness to go with the hot hand.

At the other end of the rink, Ulf Samuelson has the penalty kill back inside the league’s top ten, with the Rangers checking in at 8th with an 84.7 percent success rate. (The team leading the pack? Tortorella’s Canucks, who kill nearly 90 percent of the power plays they face. How are they on the other side of things? You guessed it – Vancouver’s power play is a dreadful 23rd out of 30.) For the first time since 2005-06, the Rangers’ power play and penalty kill rank inside the league’s top ten.

There are just four other NHL teams that can make that same claim. The Penguins (first in the Metro), Blues (first in the Central), Bruins (first in the Atlantic) and Canadiens (third in the Atlantic). And thus tack on special teams efficiency to the list of peripherals in which the Rangers rank with the league’s elite. By nearly all outward measures – special teams, puck possession, shot differential – the Rangers should be one of the best teams in the NHL.

Yet they rank fourth in the Metro, seventh in the East and 16th overall. Why? Quite simply, they haven’t scored enough goals. But they’re trending in the right direction. Beginning with a 4-3 shootout win over Calgary on December 15, the Rangers have averaged 3.23 goals/game over their past 13. They own an 8-3-2 record during this stretch.

That’s the thing with stats such as puck possession and shot differential – and, for that matter, special teams efficiency. They need time to take effect. As the season progresses, and anomalies even out, peripherals begin to tell a truer story. Take a look at a team leading the league in these three categories in October, and there’s a fair chance they appear in the middle of the pack. Take a look at that same team sometime in March or early April, and expect to see them at the top of the standings.

So give this Rangers team time. The longer they continue to play the way they are now, the further they’ll climb up the standings. Their current 13-game stretch has seen them move up two spots in the Metro, five spots in the East, and eight spots overall. Check back in another month, and expect similar findings.

Until then, be wary of doomsday.