Sitting atop the Metropolitan Division with five wins in a row, eight in their last nine games, it’s not a reach to say the New York Rangers are rolling here in early November.
Following a pair of 5-2 victories this weekend, Saturday in Boston and at home Sunday against the Winnipeg Jets, the Rangers now own a 10-3-0 record, and their 20 points are second most in the entire National Hockey League, just one behind the Montreal Canadiens, a team that has just one regulation loss to date this season.
The numbers don’t tell the entire story, but they are impressive nonetheless. The Rangers have scored a league-high 55 goals and are averaging better than four goals per game. Their +26 goal differential through 13 games is far and away the best in the league, currently 12 goals better than a Chicago Blackhawks team that is second in the league in this category. The Blueshirts have won eight of nine on home ice at Madison Square Garden, are the least penalized team in the NHL, and have the fifth-lowest GAA in the league.
Here are a few more notes and observations on the Broadway Blueshirts.
Five for Five
The Rangers league-leading goal splurge to open up the season has been well-documented; but it still needs to be pointed out that New York has scored five goals or more eight times already. Not surprisingly, the Rangers have won all eight of those games.
In their current five-game win streak, the Blueshirts have scored five goals or more in each contest, outscoring the opposition by a whopping 26-8 margin along the way. The last time a Rangers team accomplished this feat was during the 1978-79 campaign when Phil Esposito, Anders Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson, Pat Hickey and the Ooh La La Blueshirts scored five or more in nine consecutive games. That Blueshirt squad ultimately advanced to the Stanley Cup final against the Canadiens, by the way. Just sayin’.
One major key to the current team’s offensive prowess is the fact that all four lines and three defense pairs are contributing. Six different Blueshirts have scored at least five goals already, and Brandon Pirri is just one off the mark with four. Surprisingly it’s Michael Grabner who leads the way with seven, which just speaks to the quality depth the Rangers deploy this season.
In fact so deep is the Rangers scoring that it was hardly an issue that Derek Stepan, coming off a career-best 22 goals a year ago, did not score his first this season until Saturday up in Boston, nor that highly touted rookie Pavel Buchnevich was hurt and scoreless through six games before netting his first two NHL goals this past weekend.
Nine assists for Stepan and Ryan McDonagh, and eight for rookie defenseman Brady Skjei, can’t be overlooked either as a sign that contributions are coming in all forms for New York.
Buch the Beast
Buchnevich certainly had shown flashes of offensive brilliance during the preseason and early stages of the regular season, but the 21 year-old rookie failed to hit the back of the net despite numerous prime scoring chances. That changed on Saturday when he popped his first career goal, beating Tuuka Rask of the Bruins with a right-wing power play snipe.
You just got the feeling that the floodgates might open up for Buchnevich after that goal and five-shot performance against the Bruins. Then on Sunday he made a confident highlight-reel move and finish for his second in as many nights, justifying your thinking.
With Vesey (6-4-10) and Skjei (0-8-8) already off to fast starts, and Buchnevich (2-2-4) again healthy and playing well, the Rangers have three rookies playing key roles in their fast start this season.
AV’s Learning Curve
Quite often last year Alain Vigneault was pegged by media and fans as being too stubborn and perhaps casting a blind eye to the struggles of veteran defensemen Dan Girardi and Dan Boyle. Vigneault consistently kept the pair in the lineup even when injuries and age led to poor play by the pair of former All Stars.
Sunday Vigneault showed that, perhaps, he learned a lesson from last year. With the team playing the second leg of back-to-back games on successive nights, the head coach rested Girardi and inserted the fresh Adam Clendening into the lineup.
With the defense corps fully healthy, Clendening was scratched in seven straight games after playing well in the season’s first five when Girardi and Kevin Klein missed some action. As a reward to Clendening, and a nod to the big-picture value in giving Girardi some extra rest now to have him more fresh later in the season and in the playoffs, Vigneault did something he was loath to even consider last season when Dylan McIlrath was the extra defenseman.
Clendening played nearly 17 minutes against Winnipeg, picked up his second assist of the season, blocked a couple of shots, and the Rangers did not miss a beat without their veteran alternate captain in the lineup.
Words of Caution
A year ago the Rangers raced to a 15-3-2 start, one that featured a nine-game win streak and victories in the first three games of the season. Two weeks later they slipped out of first place in the Metropolitan Division and never saw the top spot again, ultimately barely finishing ahead of the Islanders for third place in the division and a solid fourth in the Eastern Conference.
However much of that early season success, as well as the 101-point finish, masked the serious troubles the Rangers had at both ends of the rink. The splendid play of goaltenders Henrik Lundqvist and Antti Raanta, in particular, kept the Rangers winning early last season when the team’s overall game showed distinct issues.
That’s not to say these Rangers are those Rangers. It is a warning, however, that this is an 82-game grind; and while the Blueshirts may be flying high now, it doesn’t mean there aren’t bumps in the road, or ice, along the way.
Even during their current hot streak, New York has had some sloppy games, including Sunday’s against the Jets. Their speed, skill and goaltending has largely been able to right the ship when its taken on some leaks, but it bears watching when the Rangers soon hit the road next weekend and when their schedule gets a bit tougher later in the month, starting with a home-and-home with the Pittsburgh Penguins November 21-23.
Also worth keeping an eye on: slow starts. The Rangers have surrendered the first goal in seven of their 13 games, so far, many times in the opening minutes of play. Incredibly New York is still 6-1-0 in such contests, though that is a difficult trend to continue.