Hockey can be a simple game when broken down. Score on your opportunities. Limit the opponent’s chances. Be smart with the puck. But these basic fundamentals seemed lost on the New York Rangers in the early part of the season, as they continued to make the same errors game in and game out. Things may be ready to turn around for the Rangers, as their win against the Tampa Bay Lighting could be a victory to build from.
The Lightning came into the game as arguably the NHL’s best team. Their 10 wins were tied with the St. Louis Blues for the most in the league. They led the NHL in scoring, posting a 4.08 goals-per-game average heading into the tilt. Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos were on fire. They sat one and two at the top of the scoring leaderboard at the end of October. And the team’s goal differential of plus-17 led the NHL after the first month.
Deceptive speed and a terrific move by JT Miller to score in OT in Tampa. Significant win for the Rangers against maybe the NHL's best team.
— Dan Rosen (@drosennhl) November 3, 2017
However, the Rangers held them to one goal—just the second time in 14 games this season the Lightning have failed to reach two goals—and topped them 2-1 in overtime. It was easily the best the Rangers have looked all season and could be a sign that they are poised to break out of this early-season slump.
Smarts and Speed on Display
One of the biggest issues with the slow start to the season for the Rangers has been their propensity to give the puck away. Though they still gave the puck away more times than the Lightning, including a particularly egregious one by Nick Holden, the Rangers ultimately limited their number to only 10 giveaways. That is an improvement over the 16.69 giveaways per game they were averaging heading into the game.
The Rangers also utilized their speed better, too. Quick counters can be deadly in the NHL and the Rangers got on the scoreboard first by being smart. They exited their own zone and created a three-on-one opportunity—an opportunity finished off by Chris Kreider.
Late in the first period, Kreider skated hard to the net and scored on a great feed from Mika Zibanejad. What I liked most about the play was the willingness to go up the boards. Far too often this season, the Rangers have forced pucks in the middle of the ice. With this goal, they were smart in their own zone and did not force the play. Instead, they were opportunistic and jumped on the Lightning when Kucherov fell down and opened up the ice.
Henrik Lundqvist Sharp
Lundqvist has been less than stellar to start this season. He is on the backside of his career and his Vezina-winning years are behind him. For the Rangers, Lundqvist needs to be sharp if they want to be a complete team. He has allowed far too many soft goals and does not have the ability anymore to bail out poor defensive play at the rate he once did. He is simply an average goalie.
The game plan for the Rangers against the Lightning made it easier for Lundqvist to succeed. First off, they limited the chances in the slot. That is one area on the ice which has plagued this team defensively. Time and again, opposing players were afforded time and space in a high-percentage spot to score goals. The Rangers effectively moved Tampa’s shots to the boards and to the points, which allowed Lundqvist the chance to square up the shot and cut down the angles. Positioning has always been an area of Lundqvist’s game that has excelled, but due to poor defensive zone management on the part of the Rangers, Lundqvist has been left out to dry more times than not.
The one goal that did sneak past him occurred when the Rangers failed to pick up the right man in the defensive zone. This has also been a problem for the Rangers this season. On the play, Kevin Shattenkirk played the puck carrier, Victor Hedman, as he entered the Rangers zone. Kreider did a fantastic job in getting back to prevent an odd-man rush. However, he failed to pick up Yanni Gourde and opted to double-team Hedman. It is here where Hedman skillfully moved the puck to a wide-open Gourde, who beat Lundqvist far post.
But on the whole, the Rangers limited those sorts of silly errors and gave Lundqvist a better chance to succeed. This sort of commitment to defense against the highest scoring team in the league could give this Rangers team the confidence they need moving forward. No game is going to be perfect, but the win against the Lightning was about as complete of a team performance as you can get.
Depth Scoring Rearing Its Head
The Rangers have relied on their depth for years now, but struggled early on this season to put the puck in the net. However, their scoring has picked up as of late, and multiple players are now chipping in. Five Rangers players recorded 10 or more points in the month of October. According to Elias Sports Bureau, this is the first time since February of 2015 that the Rangers have accomplished such a feat.
As touched on earlier, Kreider scored the opening goal by using his size and speed to get in front of the net. He only has seven points through the first 14 games of the season, but has now scored in four of his last six games and is beginning to heat up. Kreider scored a career-high 28 goals last season and the Rangers are hoping he builds on that success. At 26 years old, he is still young. I would not be shocked if he reaches the 30-goal plateau for the first time. He has the tools. It is just a matter of consistency.
OT WINNER pic.twitter.com/Dp6WdMOUPF
— New York Rangers (@NYRangers) November 3, 2017
Another depth player getting into the action was J.T. Miller, who scored a fantastic goal in overtime to defeat the Lightning. He now has three goals and eight assists on the season. Miller, like Kreider, is looking to build off of last season’s success where he tallied a career-high 56 points. He has steadily increased his point production each year in the NHL and is still only 24 years old. And also like Kreider, he plays with speed and size. The Rangers can start looking a lot more like the teams of the past few years if these two players can continue to produce.