As the NHL heads into the Olympic Break with about a quarter of the season left to play out, untold mayhem stirs on the horizon. The picture you see in the standings today will likely transform into something much different by April 13, at which point we can put a definitive stamp on each team’s (regular season) report card. But with the Olympics representing something of a mid-term vacation, we decided to say screw it, and hand out some grades and comments on the Rangers season through 59 games.
From afar, the Rangers’ season might look like Act 1 and Act 2. Intermission took place during the Holiday Break, at which point the Blueshirts were 18-18-2 and floating in the middle of a pretty crowded Metropolitan Division. Since then, they have gone 14-6-1 and emerged as a legitimate threat in the Eastern Conference, a status that was validated with a 4-3 win in Pittsburgh on Friday night.
But to divide their season into two distinct halves would be a crime of simplicity. The 2013-14 campaign for the Rangers has already gone through four different stages, each one inspiring a different outlook. The Blueshirts lost seven of their first 10, then rebounded to win six of their next seven and climb past .500. At this point, they looked to have put their early season demons behind them and appeared ready to make a push up the division standings.
Oops. The Rangers turned around and played sub-.500 hockey for the next month and a half, falling further back into the pack by Christmas. They were pretty much a non-entity coming out of the Holiday Break, and thus January seemed to be a defining month for Alain Vigneault’s group. They responded with a 10-4-1 record in the first month of the new year, including a clean sweep of the Stadium Series, and have nosed in front of that six-team field in the Metropolitan.
In the process, the Rangers have established themselves as a team founded on speed, a quick-transitioning, get-up-and-go group that likes to push the pace when they have the puck. That is – at the risk of oversimplification – their “identity.” They still have some work to do, but their improved play of late has made it reasonable again to mention the Rangers and the Stanley Cup in the same sentence. (And thus prepare for the free-fall!!)
Okay, on to the grades. We’ll take it group-by-group, from the forwards to the defensemen to the goalies.
It’s been a year of quiet redemption for the Rangers’ forwards. None of them rank anywhere near the top of the charts – Mats Zuccarello, the team’s leading scorer, ranks 44th in the NHL in points – but together they have comprised a pretty productive group. In similar fashion to the 2011-12 season, when the Rangers finished first in the Eastern Conference, offensive contributions have come from up and down the lineup, the team lighting the lamp by committee.
Okay, “lighting the lamp” is probably an overstatement for a team that ranks 18th in the league in goals per game, but since the Holiday Break the Rangers have really found their game offensively. They are averaging 3.24 goals per game over their current 14-6-1 surge, which would rank third in the league (and first in the East) over the course of this season. And 21 games is a big enough sample size to suggest this is more than a blip on the radar. If the Rangers can continue at or near this pace for the rest of the year, they’ll emerge as a favorite in the East entering the playoffs.
The promising aspect of the Rangers’ offense is its versatility. Instead of relying on one line (hello Islanders) or four or five guys (hello Penguins), the Rangers distribute the load evenly amongst a deep group of capable forwards, all unique in their own ways. Carl Hagelin brings his speed. Chris Kreider brings his size. Derek Stepan brings his play-making ability. Mats Zuccarello brings his craftiness with the puck. Rick Nash brings just about all that. The list goes on. The Rangers are one of the few teams in the league who have nine forwards past the 20-point mark, which means they can still win games when certain guys struggle to score. Stepan has one goal in the past eight games, Kreider one goal in the past 12, and Hagelin one goal in the past 14. That’s a big chunk of the pie to make up, but the Rangers have found contributions elsewhere – namely from that third line of Zuccarello, Benoit Pouliot and Derick Brassard – to keep racking up the wins. Their offensive production, you could say, is sustainable.
And speaking of Zuccarello, Pouliot and Brassard, what a difference they have made on the Rangers’ power play. The extra-man unit figured to be better this season under the watch of associate coach Scott Arniel, but it was hard to imagine things improving as quickly and dramatically as they have. The team’s power play ranks ninth in the NHL at 20.1 percent, and has been especially effective with Zuccarello, Pouliot and Brassard on the ice. That trio has accounted for 15 goals and 37 points on the man-advantage, Pouliot’s net presence a perfect complement to the puck-moving ways of Zuccarello and Brassard. Look for the power play to continue to thrive over the final quarter of the season.
Overall grade: B+. A weak start keeps this group from earning an A, but they have thrived of late. They deserve particular credit for picking up the slack when certain players struggle, a sign of depth in the top-nine that was clearly missing on last year’s squad. Continue as they are now, and this group is looking at an A-/A by the end of the season.
It’s been an interesting season so far for the Rangers’ backline. Early on, they struggled to adjust to Alain Vigneault’s hybrid system in the defensive zone, which combines elements of overload pressure on the half wall and man-to-man coverage down low. From Ryan McDonagh to John Moore, the defensemen looked lost and unsure of themselves, as opposing forwards exploited holes in the Rangers’ d-zone coverage. Through the first 11 games of the season, the typically-airtight Blueshirts were allowing nearly 3.5 goals per game.
Dan Girardi, for one, looked particularly over his head. By November, there were questions as to whether Girardi, more of a shot-blocking, stay-at-home defender, could ever adapt to Vigneault’s more extended d-zone system. Where he thrived under John Tortorella, who basically had his team collapse in its own end, Girardi didn’t seem to have the foot speed to make a difference under Vigneault. But as November gave way to December, the veteran defenseman slowly began figuring things out, and now, in early February, he is firmly locked into the team’s number-one pairing alongside McDonagh.
Girardi’s return to form mirrors that of his teammates on the blueline. One guy, of course, never quite made the grade under Vigneault, and was shipped out of town in January for right-handed defenseman Kevin Klein of the Nashville Predators. Michael Del Zotto never really established himself in the top-six this season, a fact more due to this offensives struggles then defensive shortcomings. Vigneault wants expects his defensemen to pitch in offensively, to jump in the rush up ice the way Brian Leetch always used to, and Del Zotto simply wasn’t producing the way Vigneault thought – or was told – he could. The Rangers have won five of seven since the trade, allowing just 1.85 goals per game over that stretch.
In stiffening up defensively over the past month, the Rangers have moved up to tenth in the NHL at 2.44 goals against per game. That’s solid standing for a team that gave up 15 goals over two forgettable – unforgettable? – games in October, but Vigneault probably isn’t satisfied with his d-corps yet. Defensively, he has to be thrilled with their on-the-fly improvement, but this group is still pretty impotent on the other side of the puck.
To Vigneault, guys like Marc Staal and John Moore are responsible for more than sound defensive play and the random assist every now and then. While he can live with the one-way games of Klein and Anton Stralman, Vigneault expects Staal, Moore – and Girardi – to make a difference at both ends of the rink. In 2011-12, A.V.’s last full season as coach of the Canucks, Vancouver had four defenseman record 25 or more points; Ryan McDonagh is the only Ranger defensemen above a 25-point pace right now. Take the defensive improvement as an obvious plus, but this group still has some growing to do.
Overall grade: B-. That’s a tough mark for a team that ranks inside the top ten in goals against per game, but we’re grading the defensemen against Vigneault’s expectations. Hats off to them for bearing down and figuring things out after a disastrous start – and perhaps that’s partly responsible for the low offensive output – but let’s see if they can’t play more of a two-way game as a group down the stretch.
Remember when Henrik Lundqvist was losing starts to Cam Talbot back in December? Now that’s but a hazy memory, a strange scenario drawn from a dreamlike state. Lundqvist has reclaimed the net for the Rangers with sterling play over the past month, and it’s comfortingly unfathomable, once again, to think of anyone but The King starting in goal for the Blueshirts.
Lundqvist is supposed to be the best player for the Rangers, in the same way Nash is supposed to be their best forward. When Hank is the one leading the way, everyone else can fall agreeably in line, confident in Lundqvist’s ability to bail them out when he must. Back in December, the Rangers won a 4-3 game on the road against the Lightning behind 37 saves from Lundqvist, including 15 in the third period. Afterward, Zuccarello noted “Hank was our best player tonight, and that’s a good sign for us.”
The Rangers know how much they need Lundqvist. He is the backbone to the team, the guy around which everything else falls into place. When he struggled through the first half of the season, the team crumbled around him, the centerpiece to their puzzle suddenly missing. If it weren’t for the superb play of backup Cam Talbot, the Rangers would have been in a much bleaker position at the Holiday Break.
Talbot, who started the season in Hartford, was an early-season lifeline for the Blueshirts, winning seven of his nine starts before Christmas, including two on the backend of a spiraling nine-game homestand. He allowed more than two goals only once in his first nine NHL starts, and, despite coming back down to earth since, still boasts a .935 SV% and 1.79 GAA. When Martin Biron announced his surprise retirement five games into the season, the Rangers suddenly looked dangerously thin in goal, especially with the as-yet-unsigned Lundqvist basically cutting off talks with Glen Sather. Four months later, with the resurgent Lundqvist locked up for the next seven years and Talbot proving his NHL worth, goaltending is last on the Rangers (relatively short) list of concerns.
And how about that resurgent Lundqvist? After fighting a long-term bout of inconsistency for the first time in his career, Lundqvist is back to playing like one of the game’s best. His season numbers still aren’t where he would like them to be given his rocky first half, but Hank is climbing up the charts. In his past twelve games, Lundqvist has posted a .948 SV% and 1.25 GAA. He’s back in that I-should-stop-everything mindset that has been the foundation of his prolonged success in the NHL, and which manifests itself anytime a puck slips by him these days. In an act of disgust, Lundqvist will slouch his shoulders and jerk his head forward, convinced he should’ve had that. The more often he does this, the higher his confidence must be.
Confidence is the key, Lundqvist will tell you. While struggling to find his game through the first three months of the season, Lundqvist insisted, “I have to stay confident, I have to stay confident.” And it was hard at times, he admitted, but the Rangers are fortunate he stayed the course. Slowly, he worked his way out of his funk – “these things don’t happen overnight,” he explained – and now he is heading off to Sochi with his game in tip-top shape. Rangers fans should hope Sweden does well at the Olympics so that Lundqvist may play frequently and stay in this groove. Rest is probably the last thing he needs right now.
Overall grade: A-. That feels high considering where Lundqvist was a month and a half ago – and maybe it is. But the Rangers’ goalies, between Hank and Talbot, actually have one of the higher cumulative save percentages in the league. And you can’t underestimate the discovery of the “Goalbuster.” Even if the Rangers can’t keep him, Talbot will likely prove to be a valuable trade chip down the road.
Team’s overall grade: B. The Rangers were a C-minus hockey club for much of the first half, but that was probably to be expected. They were adapting to a new system under Alain Vigneault (which is still an ongoing process), and learning how to play without thinking about how to play. That’s a big step for any team, and the Rangers appear now to be taking it. The Olympic Break probably doesn’t come at the best time, interrupting the team just as they were starting to find their groove, but expect more of the same when they hit the ice after Sochi. They haven’t quite clawed all the way back to Cup Contender status, but they’re close.