It is only a small sample size, just six games, but the New York Rangers have a lot to like about the start to their season, so far.
Sitting at 4-2-0 before a pair of winnable games, tonight at home against the offensively challenged and injury-riddled Boston Bruins and Friday down in Carolina against a Hurricanes team that just completed a season-opening six-game road trip, the Rangers should have six wins in their first eight outings before closing the month of October with a real good test against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Sunday at Madison Square Garden.
Of course, to be riding high entering Sunday’s contest the Rangers need to keep doing what has made them successful so far.
Consistent Offensive Collaboration
The Rangers have eight players on their roster that have scored two or more goals already. Chris Kreider and rookie Jimmy Vesey have three apiece while Mike Zibanejad, Mats Zuccarello, Rick Nash, Brandon Pirri, J.T. Miller and Michael Grabner all have scored twice.
In addition, six players have recorded at least four points, with Kreider topping the list with seven points in five games. The Rangers are fourth in the league in scoring, averaging 3.67 goals per game.
That’s a heckuva’ collaborative effort offensively for the Blueshirts. No one player, nor one line combination, has carried the scoring load. Instead, contributions are coming from all four lines, as well as from the back end where team captain Ryan McDonagh has chipped in with five assists already, Dan Girardi and Marc Staal have scored clutch goals, and Girardi, Brady Skjei and Nick Holden all have a couple of points apiece.
Add to the mix that Alain Vigneault has juggled his lines and defense pairings while navigating injuries to Kreider, Pavel Buchnevich, Oscar Lindberg, Girardi and Kevin Klein, and it’s even more impressive how well the Rangers are functioning offensively.
Zibanejad, for example, started the season by centering Kreider and Buchnevich on the club’s top line, its hottest one too. After two games, Buchnevich suffered back spasms, so Nash filled his spot, and then Zuccarello swapped lines with Nash. When Kreider missed Sunday’s 3-2 win over the Coyotes, Miller moved up to his spot on the No. 1 line, recorded a season-high seven shots on goal, and scored on the power play.
And it’s not just the high-end forwards getting the job done for the Rangers offensively. Grabner scored the team’s first goal of the season in the opener against the Islanders and has used his speed and skill to add a missing dimension to the fourth line through six games. Josh Jooris got the Rangers going with a hard-nosed goal Sunday against Arizona as the fourth line again made a difference in the offensive zone.
Possess the Puck
Vigneault has long been an advocate for puck possession being key to success.
Corsi and Fenwick numbers will tell you that the Rangers did not have the puck nearly enough last season, despite somehow managing to win 46 games, total 101 points, and finish fourth in the Eastern Conference. What you saw on the ice was the Blueshirts often trapped deep in their own end giving up one quality scoring chance after another, and the numbers confirmed it.
So far, possession has been the most improved aspect of the Rangers’ game this season. The Rangers are dictating play and playing at a high tempo because they are not stuck in their own end. But are the Rangers able to play at such a high pace and cut down on chances in their own end because they are making smarter decisions and able to possess the puck more, or is their speed game allowing them to spend less time in their own zone and put opponents back on their heels?
Really, the correct answer is yes and yes, both factors are vital to the Rangers’ success to date. After being outshot by two shots per game a year ago, the Rangers are averaging six more shots on goal than the opposition in 2016-17. Just as important is that the shots allowed average is down to 25.3 per game, third fewest in the league and five shots per game fewer than last season.
Another reason the Rangers have the puck more often on their sticks? They are winning face-offs. Last year, the Blueshirts were under 50 percent and in the bottom third of the NHL in this category. This season, New York is third in the league, winning draws at better than 53 percent. They have been good at both ends of the ice, winning 58 percent of their face-offs in the offensive zone and 54 percent in the defensive end.
Zibanejad has helped in this area, carrying a team-best 57.75 percent success rate into tonight’s game against Boston; and Kevin Hayes, who was brutal on draws in the first two years of his career, is up over 51 percent this season. Jooris (63%) and Lindberg (who won seven of nine face-offs in his season debut Sunday) have dominated in the circle for the fourth line as well.
Win face-offs, gain control of the puck, quickly move into offensive mode, that is Puck Possession 101 in the National Hockey League.
A small sample size so far, but a solid building block moving forward.
Jim Cerny has covered the National Hockey League for more than two decades. He has handled play by play duties for the New York Islanders, hosted the NHL Live talk show, been a hockey writer for The New York Times, and spent the previous nine years as the Digital Content Producer for the New York Rangers offical team web sites and social media accounts.