Among the myriad of issues that derailed the New York Rangers season a year ago, perhaps none was more destructive than the one-two punch of poor special teams plays on both the power play and penalty killing units.
The Rangers finished the regular season in the middle of the pack on the power play, 14th overall, converting at 18.6 percent, though long droughts during the year sabotaged many a chance at victory. The penalty kill was a bigger problem as the Rangers slipped all the way down to 26th in the league after finishing sixth and third in Alain Vigneault’s first two seasons behind the bench.
This preseason, so far, has offered some hope that the Rangers might be able to turn things around on both ends of their special teams.
The Powerful Power Play
The Rangers have scored eight goals in their first two preseason games, and half of them have come on the revived power play. They were 2-for-3 in Tuesday’s 5-2 win over the New York Islanders and 2-for-6 in Thursday’s 3-1 MSG victory against the New Jersey Devils.
There are several reasons for the power play success. An influx of new, young, skilled, offensive-minded players is a major reason; but so is the team’s willingness to shoot the puck more and not overpass as was so often the case in year’s past. The Rangers are also consistently getting bodies to the net and creating traffic in front of opposing goaltenders.
Brandon Pirri and Pavel Buchnevich are examples of the talented players New York is looking to integrate into the roster this season, and both have stood out on the power play. The 25-year-old Pirri, a 22-goal scorer two seasons ago with the Florida Panthers, is a shoot-first threat who has had prior power play success in the NHL. He appeared in both preseason games this week and totaled five points (3-2-5) overall, with two of those goals and four of those points coming with the man advantage, while the 21-year-old Buchnevich generated a string of scoring chances on the power play against both the Islanders and the Devils.
Mika Zibanejad, the club’s top off-season acquisition, made his presence felt immediately, scoring off a left-wing rocket on New York’s first power play of the preseason Tuesday night. A skilled right-hand shot setting up on the left side of the power play, as the 23-year-old Zibanejad did against the Islanders, is a major addition to the Blueshirts’ man advantage this season. Two of his three points Tuesday were recorded on the power play.
Other younger forwards like Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes, and Jimmy Vesey also impressed during man-advantages this week; and veterans Derek Stepan, Mats Zuccarello, Ryan McDonagh and Rick Nash will be in the mix, too, and are not be forgotten either.
What gives one pause, however, is that despite the early power play success the Rangers have faced teams whose rosters have been half-filled with players who won’t even be in the NHL to start the season. Even New York’s own Adam Clendening, the 23-year-old defenseman who efficiently ran the power play Tuesday while picking up an assist on one PPG and starting the rush on the second man-up tally, may find himself in the minor leagues to start the 2016-17 campaign.
So until the rosters of all teams, including the Rangers are set, the jury will remain out on how good this power play will be, even though the early returns are quite favorable.
To Kill or Not to Kill
The same holds true for the Blueshirts’ penalty kill, which has killed off all 11 of the opposition’s power plays through the first two preseason games, but which has also seen players like Max Lapierre, in training camp on a tryout and quite likely not in New York come opening night, play a major role.
Still, it’s hard not to notice the overall commitment to a more structured approach on the PK, so far. A strong penalty kill was a real staple in the Rangers run to the 2012 and 2015 Eastern Conference Finals, as well as the 2014 Stanley Cup Final appearance after New York had the NHL’s third-best PK during the regular season.
Losing key penalty killers Carl Hagelin, Brian Boyle, Anton Stralman, and Ryan Callahan, plus the diminished play of Dominic Moore, Dan Girardi and Marc Staal, and the long-term injury suffered by Nash caught up to the Rangers a year ago. Ten times during the 2015-16 campaign New York surrendered more than one power play goal, and many more times the Rangers allowed teams to grab momentum by bombarding Henrik Lundqvist or Antti Raanta with prime scoring chances while scrambling in unstructured fashion in their own end.
The additions of Michael Grabner, Nathan Gerbe and Zibanejad should help this group out immensely up front this season. They join solid penalty killers in Nash, Stepan and Jesper Fast among the forwards, with Lapierre and rookie Marek Hrivik taking advantage of their PK opportunities so far in the preseason. Defensemen Nick Holden, another newcomer, and Dylan McIlrath, the rugged 6-foot-5 sophomore, both looked strong on the PK Thursday.
As Vigneault often says, strong specialty teams can most definitely win or lose hockey games and are major difference-makers and momentum-shifters come playoff time.
Right now, more than two weeks before opening night, the Rangers special teams have had that special look. Time will tell if that will continue.