The New York Rangers began the season as the NHL’s top-scoring team, averaging over four goals per game well into November. But then the injury bug befell them, sidelining Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich long-term, as well as Rick Nash, Matt Puempel, and Jimmy Vesey (among others) on a more short-term basis. Teams also began adjusting to the Rangers’ quick counterattacking style by clogging the neutral zone and forcing the Rangers into mistakes.
While there were some struggles for a few weeks, the Rangers, to their credit, have adjusted their style of play to compensate for their depleted lineup and their opponents’ own adjustments against them. They have now won three in a row and seven of their past 10. They sit in first place in the Metropolitan Division with 47 points via an excellent 23-10-1 record.
A Change in Style
Early in the year, the Rangers were winning games with a high-octane offensive attack that was predicated on creating rush chances via quick outlets from the defensive zone and speed through the neutral zone. They also feasted on opponents’ turnovers in the neutral zone and were effective at generating a quick-strike offense the other way.
Speed and skill are necessary qualities of such a style of play, so losing Zibanejad to a broken fibula in late November and then Buchnevich to recurring back spasms and a subsequent conditioning stint only slightly earlier obviously detracted from New York’s attack. Shorter-term injuries to Nash, Vesey, Puempel, and others also didn’t help.
Throw in the fact that the league finally began to figure out a way to stifle the Rangers’ quick transition game via a lockdown of the neutral zone, and the recipe for Ranger plight was complete. After some struggles though, the Blueshirts began to make adjustments of their own, playing a more patient style with better defense and strong special teams (both their power play and penalty kill rank in the league’s top 10). They have been taking the plays that are there, without forcing anything that could backfire. They have also been better from a possession standpoint, as they have been playing more soundly in their own end.
Lately, the Rangers have not been winning games 5-2 or 7-4 or 6-1 like they were early on. Their past seven wins have been by scores of 3-2 (SO), 2-1 (SO), 2-0, 5-0, 1-0, 2-1, and 4-2. Before that stretch, they had not won a game all season when scoring fewer than three goals. Now, four of their past seven wins have occurred under that circumstance.
It hasn’t always been pretty, but the Rangers have found the right balance of being patient and opportunistic, and they have also seen an improvement in their goaltending. Antti Raanta has been excellent for New York, especially during his four-game string of starts when the suggestion of Henrik Lundqvist’s demise was slightly overblown.
Now Lundqvist has also contributed in a significant way, having secured wins in each of the club’s past three games while only allowing three goals during that span. In the past 10 games, between Raanta and Lundqvist, the Rangers’ team save percentage is a stellar .941 (257 saves on 273 shots).
The Rangers are finding different ways to win, which is one sign of a good team. Their bounce-back play of late has them still maintaining the first-place spot in the ultra-competitive Metropolitan Division, though there is a handful of teams breathing down the Rangers’ necks with games in hand.
The Rangers, nevertheless, have reason to be optimistic. They are playing well right now, and once Buchnevich and Zibanejad return to the lineup, they will be a more dangerous offensive force once again. At that point though, they will also have the additional benefit of knowing how to win low-scoring games when they inevitably occur.