The New York Rangers have gotten off to a decent 3-2-1 start this season thanks to their excellent power play and ability to capitalize on scoring chances. However, they have not defended well enough and they need to play much better in front of star goaltender Igor Shesterkin to reach their potential.
Rangers Have Relied Too Heavily on Igor Shesterkin
Last season the Rangers took a big step in the right direction thanks to the stellar play of Shesterkin as well as strong play from their special teams units and clutch playoff performances by their star players. However, throughout the regular season and playoffs, they consistently allowed more scoring chances than they created but still won because they were opportunistic and their goalie consistently outplayed opposing goaltenders.
One of the positives last season was that they developed a very reliable group of top-four defensemen and limited sloppy giveaways in the defensive zone that could have led to odd-man rushes. They also had reliable forwards throughout their lineup who consistently backchecked, especially during the postseason.
This season, the Rangers have made far too many defensive mistakes at inopportune times. In their game against the Anaheim Ducks on Oct. 17, the Rangers had a big lead but took unnecessary risks multiple times which resulted in odd-man-rushes against them. They held on to win the game 6-4 but their mistakes let Anaheim get back in the game. Shesterkin only made 18 saves but he made some big ones late in the game.
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In the Rangers’ game against the San Jose Sharks (who entered winless in their first five games) on Oct. 20, they got dominated in the third period, allowing 16 shots and generating just two. Shesterkin bailed them out, stopping all 16 including a few that came after ugly turnovers by stars Adam Fox and Artemi Panarin. In overtime, they had yet another giveaway which led to the Sharks’ game-winning goal.
Despite the disappointing third period and overtime against the Sharks, the Rangers have done a nice job of controlling the puck and creating a lot of scoring chances early this season. However, their poor defensive coverage and numerous giveaways have burned them.
Rangers’ Struggles on Defense
Additionally, the Rangers’ third defense pair of Braden Schneider (21 years old) and Zac Jones (22 years old) struggled in the game. They both got caught out of position multiple times and it led to a goal for the Sharks late in the second period. In the team’s 5-1 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Oct. 23, Jones stared down his intended target on a pass. Columbus took advantage, stealing the puck, creating a three-on-two opportunity, and scoring a goal.
Given their youth, it’s normal for both Jones and Schneider to experience some growing pains, but the Rangers will need them to bounce back. The team struggled to solidify their third pair on defense last season and they need their young blueliners to be reliable this season.
The bigger problem for the Rangers is that their normally-trustworthy defenders have made too many uncharacteristic mistakes. The team’s top-four defensemen of Fox, Ryan Lindgren, Jacob Trouba, and K’Andre Miller have all proven they are strong defenders, but they need to make smarter plays with the puck, especially Fox. He is an incredible playmaker but too many times, he has made lackadaisical passes that have gotten intercepted by opposing players. Last season, he limited those mistakes and now he simply needs to avoid forcing dangerous passes in his own zone.
There is no doubt the Rangers will rely heavily on Shesterkin this season but they need to start playing better defense in front of him (and backup goalie Jaroslav Halak too). During the playoffs last season, they gave up a lot of shots but limited odd-man rushes and allowed fewer giveaways in the defensive zone. In order to make it back to the postseason, they need to limit those mistakes and stop putting so much pressure on their goalies to bail them out.