NY Rangers Breeze Through Western Canada

The New York Rangers have come a long way since the start of last season. For those of you who don’t recall, they began last year with an epic nine-game road trip due to the renovations to Madison Square Garden. And it was far from a good trip. In fact, it included two of the most lopsided losses this team has endured in recent memory (losing in San Jose and Anaheim by a combined score of 15-2). Of course, the Rangers shook off that horrible start and became one of the best road teams in the NHL en route to the Stanley Cup Final.

This year, they haven’t been as strong, but have compiled a respectable 6-5-1 record away from MSG, while playing with a lineup depleted by injuries. Their record has been helped by their recent swing through Western Canada, where they won three straight games in Vancouver, Edmonton, and Calgary. What makes this trip outstanding from the Rangers’ perspective is that they won these three games in three different ways.

Act I: A Vancouver Surprise

The Rangers’ Western Canada road trip began with a bang on Saturday, December 13 against the Vancouver Canucks. By the time seven minutes had elapsed in the first period, the Rangers were already leading 3-0 behind goals from captain Ryan McDonagh (his first of the year), J.T. Miller, and Mats Zuccarello. Marc Staal and Zuccarello added two more tallies in the second, and the Rangers surrendered a lone goal to the Canucks in the third, leaving the final score as 5-1.

The Rangers won this game with speed and fast puck movement. They were able to take their game to a level that Vancouver just couldn’t match. The Canucks allowed the Rangers to do whatever they wanted with the puck, with predictable results. The Blueshirts started so strong and fast that there was no need to dig deep for a win in this contest. Mats Zuccarello’s second goal of the night illustrates just how easy it was for the Rangers to move the puck on this night.

Act II: Fatigue Strikes Back

If the game against Vancouver was a series of lightning-quick precision strikes, the following night’s contest against the Edmonton Oilers was trench warfare–slow and deliberate. The Oilers played a plodding, uninspired game, and the Rangers seemed content to sit back and wait for the Oilers to make mistakes. The Rangers didn’t even record their first shot on goal until almost halfway through the first period. Whether the Blueshirts were fatigued from the back-to-back games with travel in-between, or were stunned by the sudden loss of 2nd line center Derrick Brassard, there was no flow to this game at all. Brassard became the latest NHL player diagnosed with Mumps, was immediately quarantined and then sent back to New York via a privately chartered plane.

“You’re not going to win a game perfectly like (Saturday) night every night, we’re going to have to win games in different fashions. Tonight was a back and forth game, not too much going on, but we tried to keep our focus and not get too sloppy.”  — Dan Girardi

The Rangers did play a solid defensive game, as evidenced by the meager total of 15 shots directed on Henrik Lundqvist by the Oilers. Lundqvist stopped all of them and notched his fifth shutout of the season. At the same time, however, they only mustered 22 total shots against Ben Scrivens, and did not beat him once. Their first goal, credited to Dan Girardi, went in off an Oilers defenseman, and Carl Hagelin’s goal was an empty-netter. In the end, though, it was another two points–and the Blueshirts found a different way to win, which was good to see from a team that had been finding ways to lose earlier in the year.

Act III:  When Opportunity Knocks…

The Rangers got two days off before moving 300km south to play the Calgary Flames. The Flames had been one of this season’s early success stories, but entered the night on a five game losing streak. Calgary played a better game than Vancouver and Edmonton, but committed several defensive mistakes. The Rangers capitalized on those mistakes quickly and jumped to an early lead. Rick Nash continued his hot play–opening the scoring with a highlight-reel breakaway goal and adding another short-handed goal later in the game to bring his goal total on the year to 20. Chris Kreider, who had recently been visible for all the wrong reasons, also netted a goal late in the first period. By the time Derek Stepan scored his third goal of the year at 11:15 of the second period, the Blueshirts were holding a comfortable 4-0 lead.

On the scoreboard, this game looked similar to the Vancouver game–the Rangers won 5-2, and many of the goals (like Rick Nash’s above) were the result of quick strikes. However, this was not nearly as lopsided a game as the score would indicate. The Rangers were outshot 31-23 in the contest, and Calgary was able to control the play for good parts of the game. The difference maker for the Rangers was, once again, Henrik Lundqvist.  He kept the Flames off the scoreboard for the entire first half of the game, and stood tallest when the pressure was on.

This win was all about goaltending, and creating opportinities. While the Flames were applying pressure, they overstepped on many occasions–bringing defensemen too far into the offensive zone. The Rangers took advantage of those oversteps with regularity, and turned them into goals. Calgary’s over-pressure was turned into one odd-man rush after another, with predictable results. Rick Nash’s second goal was a great example of this:

 Conclusion: Moving Forward

The Rangers are quietly becoming a solid team after a less than stellar start to the season. With their blitz of Western Canada (the first time that a Rangers team has ever won all three road games on a Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary tour), they now have a four-game winning streak as they head back east to close out their current road trip in Raleigh against the Carolina Hurricanes.

While the Rangers are still far from a perfect team, they showed great resilience and flexibility over this trip. Road trips can tend to bring teams together, and this one appears to have done that for the Rangers. They won three games in three different ways–always using the other teams’ weaknesses against them. The lessons learned from this trip should serve them well as the season wears on. If this is the type of team that the Blueshirts are becoming, then their outlook for the season just got quite a bit brighter.