Rangers Defense Unable to Save Scoring Woes

It took until the end of the first month of NHL regular season play, but the New York Rangers finally achieved wins in consecutive games. The Rangers secured back-to-back wins via shootout over the San Jose Sharks on Oct. 30 and the Anaheim Ducks on Nov. 1 before defeating the Buffalo Sabres on Nov. 4.

They’ve now won six of 11 after dropping their first three games of the season. The three straight victories and .500 record in their last 10 games don’t play much a factor into the standings — the team is currently tied for sixth in the Metropolitan division and tied for 12th in a highly competitive Eastern Conference.

But the focus of this year isn’t on the Stanley Cup or any sort of trophy, but rather working on the current rebuild state and building up the young talent into future Blueshirts superstars. While flashes of talent have been seen thus far from the youth and new faces, struggles are still aplenty. First-year head coach David Quinn is hoping to eliminate these as quick as possible, and he’s focusing on delivering high pressure and competitiveness to the point where he’ll bench players for not keeping up with the pace of play.

David Quinn Rangers bench
Head Coach David Quinn, New York Rangers, September 27, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Quinn is hoping to show a Rangers team that can jell together and eventually evolve, not only to take New York to the next level, but also to be adaptive to opponent’s play styles along the way. But the question is where do the Rangers need help the most — offensively or defensively?

Offense Not Hitting Net

While defense is important and a goaltender should be strong, they can’t do everything for a team. And while defense is favored over offense under the current coaching staff, New York could really use a boost on the offensive front, and the numbers don’t lie.

Just a couple of weeks ago, the Blueshirts had 34.4 shots on goal per game, which was good enough for sixth in the league despite floating around the bottom of the NHL in goals per game with about 2.2. Now, their goals per game has improved to 2.5, but the team’s shots on goal per game now stands at 30.3, dropping them from sixth in the league to 24th.

The Rangers have gone from struggling to find the back of the net, to just being unable to hit the net period. Their shooting percentage is now at just 8.3 percent, 28th in the NHL. Their power play isn’t much better, capitalizing on just 18.6 percent of their man-advantage opportunities.

The sole highlights from the shooters have come from Mika Zibanejad, Mats Zuccarello, Chris Kreider and Brett Howden. Zuccarello and Kreider are popular current core members, and Zibanejad leads the team in points and is a leader of this team for the future.

Rangers center Brett Howden
Rangers center Brett Howden is a standout on the offense early in 2018-19. (James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)

But Howden has won hearts with his all-around style of play, leading some to hope he can be a big candidate for the Calder Trophy. While it’s clear New York needs work on its offense, at least the team has these four to depend on.

Defense, Physicality Give Some Relief

With Quinn’s arrival in New York, he brought about a game plan that focused on defense, to get key stops, pressure opposition into committing turnovers. In fact, most of the Rangers’ games so far have been decided by just one goal or went past regulation.

The aggressiveness has shown in the physical style of play Quinn has preached, with all but three Rangers dishing out at least one hit so far. In fact, six — wings Cody McLeod, Jesper Fast and Kreider; defensemen Brady Skjei and Neal Pionk; and center Zibanejad — have at least 20, with Skjei leading the way with 34.

Brady Skjei Rangers
Brady Skjei leads the Rangers in hits and is second on the team in blocked shots. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

And speaking of being aggressive, some of the Broadway Blueshirts’ defensemen are clearly willing to sacrifice their bodies and take one for the team, throwing themselves in front of shots to the Rangers’ net. Pionk leads the team in blocked shots with 28, with Skjei just behind at 25 and Kevin Shattenkirk at 21.

Adam McQuaid has not been the most efficient player on the stats sheet, and he has eaten plenty of criticism. However, he was acquired in a trade with the Boston Bruins back in September not necessarily because of his play but his leadership and fire, something that fits in with the vision of Quinn and Rangers brass. With one year left on his deal, he may also serve as trade bait later on in this season.

Unfortunately for the team, McQuaid is currently dealing with a lower-body injury and it could be up to Tony DeAngelo, despite his struggles, to try to fill the hole.

In addition, the special teams could use work, with the Rangers penalty-killing unit stopping 76.1 percent of their short-handed work, 24th in the league.

Lundqvist & Georgiev’s Recent Falters

But what has killed the team defensively in its latest games are the goalies. The team ranks 18th in goals allowed (3.14) and 29th in shots on goals allowed (34.9).

Clutch play, more specifically, is a big problem as of late here. New York looked like it was going to take the Los Angeles Kings to overtime back on Oct. 28, but Henrik Lundqvist let up an unassisted goal that came from quite a distance to cost the Rangers the game. Two days later, Lundqvist and the Rangers gave up a goal with two seconds left in regulation.

New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist
New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist (Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports)

While this might be enough for some to call for Lundqvist’s head and bring in the younger Alexandar Georgiev, which the Rangers did on Nov. 1 against the Anaheim Ducks, he isn’t performing much better, thanks in part to letting up seven against the Carolina Hurricanes. And against the Ducks, Georgiev gave up a goal with less than 30 seconds left to go in the third.

New York did manage to earn victories via the shootout against both the Sharks and Ducks, but it’s concerning when the team gives away a win or ability to force overtime, costing itself one or two points in the process, in the closing seconds of a game — especially in three straight games.

Out of their six victories so far, the Rangers have only won in regulation twice. And while the Rangers aren’t a contender this season, any other team would be criticized in this matter, especially when it concerns points and the standings. So the Rangers should not be excused.