Through the second half of January and most of February, the New York Rangers were playing much better hockey on a more consistent basis. Their underlying process of play was good, and it was leading to results in the win column.
The month of March, however, has seen some of the Rangers’ bad habits and inconsistent play rear their ugly heads once again. This is not an ideal time of year for this to be happening, with the playoffs a month away and a spot not officially secured. New York also surely wants to be playing its best hockey when the playoffs commence, and the club is presumably part of the field.
An Underwhelming March
The Rangers, after going 10-3-1 during the month of February, have already dropped four games in March so far, including three in regulation. Meanwhile, they have won just twice, and have allowed rivals like the New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins to stay close with them in the division standings.
New York’s defense has again shown cracks like it did in December. The team has given up three or more goals in four of its six games this month, and naturally, all four of those games have been losses.
Of course, during the course of a regular season, teams go through natural ebbs and flows, as defenseman Keith Yandle remarked after Sunday’s 5-3 loss to Pittsburgh.
#NYR Keith Yandle: “Throughout an 82-gm season, there’s ups-and-downs. You just gotta stay positive, stay strong, have faith in the group.”
— Sean Hartnett (@HartnettHockey) March 13, 2016
Unfortunately for the Rangers though, while there is never a good time for “downs”, this is happening at a bad time, as the season is winding down and they are trying to solidify their playoff position. It also doesn’t help that the Rangers will now embark on a three-game road trip to battle each California team over four days (Ducks Wednesday, Kings Thursday, Sharks Saturday). All three teams are very strong this season, and will take advantage of the Rangers if New York does not improve its game.
Worse yet, the Rangers’ underlying play all season has frankly had more “downs” than “ups”, and they have gotten by to this point because of luck and great goaltending. Against better competition in the playoffs however, that likely will not be enough.
Not long ago, the Rangers were actually playing solid hockey, as they were defending better and controlling possession more; the results followed suit. It was a nice turnaround after being on the wrong side of the possession game for much of the season before that point.
Now they are once again finding themselves on the wrong side, and with luck not always being there for them like it was for much of October and November, they have been finding themselves on the wrong side of the scoreboard as well.
— Tom Dianora (@tom_dianora) March 13, 2016
The top chart above (from war-on-ice.com), which shows a 10-game rolling average of scoring chance differential (scoring chances for minus scoring chances against) over time, illustrates the nose-dive the Rangers have taken in March. They are giving up numerous scoring chances against, but not creating many themselves. Their 3-2 overtime loss in Detroit, in which they were out-shot 43-25 and only got a point in the standings because of Henrik Lundqvist’s brilliance in goal (how many times has that been the narrative in the past decade?), exemplifies this issue.
The Rangers’ forward corps is deep, especially with the addition of Eric Staal. The main issue is on the back end, as the defensemen (namely the Wonder Twins) need to do a better job of skating and/or passing the puck out of trouble in their own zone. All too often this season, and again lately, that has not happened with regularity, and the result is more pressure from the opposition, more scoring chances against, and oftentimes more goals given up and more losses accrued in the standings.
Unless the issues of the defensemen improve, and/or head coach Alain Vigneault deploys the players differently (don’t hold your breath on that), the Rangers do not have a great chance of making a lot of noise in the playoffs this season.
(Photo credit: Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)