After a convincing 4-1 win on Monday night over the Oilers, the New York Rangers sat atop the NHL standings with 48 points. They had just defeated the defending Stanley Cup champions twice in a row, following a 4-0 shutout by Igor Shesterkin on Sunday, with a great team effort and solid performance by backup Alexandar Georgiev against Edmonton. Both those wins were done so without superstar Artemi Panarin in the lineup.
There were teams with better point percentages and games in hand while the Blueshirts sat in the number one spot. But for a franchise that announced a rebuild and has not seen the playoffs (the actual playoffs) since 2017, that moment was surreal. Led by head coach Gerard Gallant, this Rangers team has exceeded all expectations through 34 games, exemplifying why they will be a dangerous team come postseason.
Before we get too ahead of ourselves, there are still 48 games to be played before the final standings are unveiled. Right now, the Rangers find themselves in a great spot, with a 13-point gap between themselves and the playoff cutline. They have boatloads of young and experienced talent and are getting contributions from depth pieces when the top guys have an off night.
Most importantly, their goaltending has developed into a quality tandem, with potential Vezina-finalist Shesterkin and the resilient Georgiev. The knock on the Rangers was their inability to beat elite-level teams. They have played Florida, Tampa Bay twice, and Edmonton since the holiday break; their lone loss was a 4-3 defeat to Florida, where the Rangers had every chance to win the hockey game, coming just short.
They have started to nullify that notion and now look to continue winning against quality teams like Vegas and Anaheim on this upcoming road trip. With a lot still to prove throughout the season, what makes me say that the Rangers are contenders right now?
Well, let’s dive into that.
Rangers Have Depth, Skill, and Goaltending
Skill can only take a team so far. The Rangers’ most recent opponent, the Oilers, exemplified that. But what separates the Rangers is their skill guys are up and down the lineup, giving them depth up front and on defense. They have their big guns in Panarin, Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad, and Ryan Strome. Guys like Barclay Goodrow and Kevin Rooney have stepped up as well.
Couple those players with the flashes of talent we see from Alexis Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko, Filip Chytil, and Julien Gauthier, and that is an excellent forward corps. The youngsters have not scored consistently; that much is well-documented. Yet the Rangers still sit near the tops of the league. Imagine what might happen if the consistent production comes in the second half?
As deep as the forwards are, the defense corps is equally adept. The Rangers played without their third pair of Patrik Nemeth and Nils Lundqvist, and some may say the defense looked even better with Zac Jones and Libor Hajek replacing them (myself included). Adam Fox is a Norris defenseman, Ryan Lindgren is a workhorse, and Jacob Trouba and K’Andre Miller have played well.
Depth is an essential component of any contending team, and the Rangers have it. But arguably, the most crucial part of a talented team is goaltending. Shesterkin has continuously proven he has a magic eraser, saving the Rangers when they make their fair share of mistakes.
Georgiev has recently found his game, giving the Rangers quality starts when Shesterkin requires a day off. Although Shesterkin is the number one and arguably the best number one at that, Georgiev’s resurgence cannot be understated when discussing the Rangers’ surge to the top of the standings.
Road Warriors and Special Teams
The playoffs are a war of attrition, and winning a postseason series often comes down to which team can steal a game on the road. The Rangers played 19 road games through their first 34 matches in 2021-22, whichl is second to only the Calgary Flames’ 20 road games. Through those 19 games, the Blueshirts are 12-5-2, suitable for the third-best road record in the NHL.
The road seems to be a second home for the Rangers, who now embark on a five-game road trip, spanning the West Coast and Philadelphia. Their style of play translates well to the road, winning close, hard-fought games due to goaltending and a splash of skill. Gallant’s group is 11-3-4 in one-goal games and has found ways to win all season long.
Related Story: Rangers’ Early 2021-22 Success an Ode To Rod Gilbert
After this road trip, the Rangers will have played 24 of their first 39 games on the road. This sets them up to play a flurry of home games in the latter portion of the campaign. Home ice has also been kind to the Rangers, going 10-3-2 at Madison Square Garden in 2021-22.
Both on the road and at home, success for the Rangers has stemmed from phenomenal special teams’ play. They currently rank seventh on the power play (25.0%) and fourth on the penalty kill (84.9%). Both units seemed to struggle early in the year, but Gallant and his staff have corrected mistakes and now feature top-10 special team groups on both sides of the puck.
There is an old saying in hockey: “Win the special teams battle, win the game.” That moniker will serve them well when goals are harder to come by later in the year, as well as the postseason. Power play and penalty kill success breed wins and keep the Rangers afloat when their five-on-five play has struggled.
Consistency is vital, but finding ways to win on the road and having top-notch special teams makes a contender.
Cap Space Could Make Rangers a More Complete Team
General Manager Chris Drury has massive decisions looming in his future. Per Cap Friendly, Drury has $5.6 million in cap space available to him right now. That may not seem like a lot, but contracts acquired at the deadline are much more affordable since you are required to pay them for only the team on your team.
With their position in the standings, the Rangers could be serious buyers at the trade deadline. They need to be smart with who they acquire, as the young Blueshirts still need contracts. But the opportunity to add affordable rentals or even manageable contracts past this season is there.
Based on the play of Lundkvist, Jones, and Hajek, the Rangers could decide to move Patrik Nemeth. Nemeth has a moderate no-trade clause (eight-team list), but moving the defenseman frees up even more cap. Several pieces on the roster and many more in the pipeline are attractive to teams at the deadline, giving the Rangers the edge in any negotiation.
Drury should be poking the tires of several players this deadline – Joe Pavelski and Riley Smith come to mind (‘Mailbag: Rangers options at right wing, Capitals goalies,’ NHL.com, 1/5/22). Cap flexibility at that time of the year should not be underestimated, and the Rangers have the flexibility to bolster the weak spots in their roster before the deadline.
The Rangers are a dangerous hockey team with a lot to prove. Being a young, up-and-coming team, they will not be discussed in the same air as the Lightnings Avalanches, and Capitals of the world, nor should they. But they are contenders, and their play thus far is promising for what the future can hold.
Brendan Azoff is a THW contributor and podcast host dedicated to covering the New York Rangers. His passion for hockey started when he first laced up the skates at three, growing into his love for writing and talking about the greatest sport in the world. His podcast, The Backcheck, breaks down the Rangers, Islanders, and NHL news and can be found on The Hockey Writers Podcast Network and Belly Up Sports. Brendan has been writing about the Rangers and the NHL for over two years, with his content also found on Puck Prose, Blue Line Station, and E2G Sports. If you want to connect with Brendan and stay up-to-date on his posts, follow him on Twitter. He is always available for content ideas and interviews, don’t be afraid to ask!