Entering this season with a new head coach in Gerard Gallant and a new-look, grittier lineup, many thought the New York Rangers could fight for a playoff spot. Not many people (myself included) thought this team would rival the Carolina Hurricanes atop the Metropolitan Division.
Yet, here we are, in a world where the Rangers, just four years removed from ‘The Letter,‘ are one of the NHL’s premier teams. The Blueshirts started this season as the third-youngest team in the NHL, with an average age of 26.05 years old. They, of course, had their stars, but they also had questions, many of which have been answered clearly by this point in the season.
People wanted to know if Igor Shesterkin could handle the workload as a full-time number one, and he has. There were questions surrounding Chris Drury’s ability to be the team’s general manager, and his trade deadline silenced the doubters. Some were concerned about the team’s blue line. Still, improvements from Jacob Trouba and K’Andre Miller and the earlier than anticipated emergence of Braden Schneider have answered those concerns.
The question has been, “Are the Rangers for real?” With six games left in the season, the answer is they are, and this team is poised for a Stanley Cup run in the 2022 postseason.
A Look at The Rangers Goaltending and Defensive Numbers
When looking at the Rangers’ numbers, it is only fair that we start with Shesterkin’s brilliance and what he has meant to this team. The Russian goaltender is 35-11-4, with a 2.05 goals-against average (GAA) and a .935 save percentage (SV%) with five shutouts thus far. He is first in the NHL in SV% and GAA and is tied for third in wins and shutouts in what has been an incredible season for ‘Igor.’
Shesterkin also leads the league in goals saved above average (41.67), high-danger save percentage (.872), and high-danger goals saved above average (24.86) amongst goaltenders with at least 1,000 minutes played at all strengths, per Natural Stat Trick. He is a significant reason why the Rangers have had success this season, weathering the storm before their resurgence post-deadline.
The Rangers have allowed the third-fewest goals in the NHL at 188 and have the second-lowest goals allowed per game of any group at 2.47. Their eight shutouts are good for third in the NHL, and their 82.08% penalty kill ranks ninth in the league.
Overall, the Rangers have given up 1,711 scoring chances for this season, but since the March 21 trade deadline, the Rangers ranked fourth in the NHL, having given up only 240. They have relied heavily on goaltending, but the Blueshirts have collectively played better defensively since the deadline, making them a much harder team to play against.
Offensive Stars Clicking, Five-on-Five Analytics Improving
Chris Kreider’s historic season continued as he hit the 50-goal mark in a loss to the Hurricanes. But Kreider hasn’t been the only name on fire of late. Artemi Panarin hit 90 points. Mika Zibanejad set a career-high with his 76th point, and newcomers Frank Vatrano and Andrew Copp continue to light it up as Rangers.
Since joining the Rangers, Vatrano has scored seven times, while Copp has registered 13 points. The two have meshed seamlessly with their new teammates and have the Blueshirts looking like a brand new team. Before the trade deadline, much of the Rangers’ talk involved their phenomenal goaltending to save their below-average five-on-five play, and rightfully so.
The Rangers ranked 30th in Corsi-For percentage (CF%) at 45.19%, 31st in Fenwick-For percentage (FF%) at 45.75%, 28th in Expected Goals-For percentage (xGF%) with 45.47%, and 31st in Scoring Chances-For percentage (SCF%) at 43.97%. (All numbers courtesy of Natural Stat Trick).
Related Story: Rangers’ Panarin is Peaking Just in Time for the Playoffs
But post-deadline has been a complete 180 for Drury’s group. Since March 22, the Rangers now rank fifth in CF% (57.14%), fifth in FF% (56.42%), fifth in xGF% (55.85%), and fourth in SCF% (56.83%). It has been a drastic improvement in all five-on-five analytical categories, with the Rangers becoming a team that dictates play for 60 minutes.
The lone piece to the puzzle that still has to be put in place is the success of the Rangers’ prized young stars, Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafreniere. Kakko suffered what Gallant hopes isn’t a severe injury just three games after returning from a 31-game absence. But when Kakko went down, Lafreniere stepped up, scoring twice, including a highlight-reel goal that was undoubtedly the best of his young career (‘Rangers’ Alexis Lafreniere scores beauty of a goal in return from bench,’ NY Post, 04/16/22).
The emergence of these two forwards would make the Rangers a juggernaut. Still, even without consistency from them just yet, the Rangers have the makings of a very dangerous group this postseason.
Too Early For the Stanley Cup?
It’s no secret that there are several teams this season who seem poised to push for the Cup. The Colorado Avalanche have been bounced in the second round for three straight years, but they have a team capable of ending that stretch. The Hurricanes are loaded with talent, as are the Florida Panthers, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Calgary Flames. The two-time defending champs, Tampa Bay Lightning, might have something to say as well.
Despite their phenomenal regular season, the Rangers have seemingly been swept under the rug regarding Stanley Cup consideration. Most say the inexperience will keep them from reaching hockey’s peak this season. But the truth is, the Rangers have found ways to defy the odds all year. And wouldn’t it be something if that trend continued into the postseason?
It does seem nearly impossible that the Rangers would break their playoff hiatus and win the Stanley Cup in the same year. And yes, those aforementioned teams seem to be ahead of the Rangers when it comes to championship pedigree.
Yet, the Rangers possess world-class goaltending, quite possibly the best goaltender in the entire postseason field. They have superstar players on both sides of the puck, and they have significant depth with their deadline acquisitions. They have a mobile and talented defensive corps, featuring reigning Norris-winner Adam Fox.
This is not a team that anyone wants to play in a seven-game series and for a good reason. The Rangers are legit, and once the NHL playoffs commence, they are a team poised to compete for the ultimate prize, not just a team who will be content with a first-round victory.
Brendan Azoff is a THW contributor and podcast host dedicated to covering the New York Rangers. His passion for hockey started when he first laced up the skates at three, growing into his love for writing and talking about the greatest sport in the world. His podcast, The Backcheck, breaks down the Rangers, Islanders, and NHL news and can be found on The Hockey Writers Podcast Network and Belly Up Sports. Brendan has been writing about the Rangers and the NHL for over two years, with his content also found on Puck Prose, Blue Line Station, and E2G Sports. If you want to connect with Brendan and stay up-to-date on his posts, follow him on Twitter. He is always available for content ideas and interviews, don’t be afraid to ask!