At the NHL All-Star break, The New York Rangers find themselves primed for a Stanley Cup run. Being the third-youngest team in the league, they are ahead of the rebuild timeline designated in February 2018 by former GM, Jeff Gorton.
Despite their strong record and winning percentage, the Rangers have some alarming flaws. They are terrible in 5v5 situations, continuing to be outplayed and Igor Shesterkin has saved their bacon on numerous occasions. He is stellar when facing 40 plus shots and is the sole reason they started the season well and he has stolen countless games to start the season. Had he played as he did at the start of last season, the Rangers would be lower in the standings.
The Rangers are a young team, and outside of Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad, Artemi Panarin, and Jacob Trouba, the rest of the players on the roster are not battle-tested. The rest are a mix of vets who haven’t made the dance and players with under three years in the league, whose only experience was the playoff bubble, where they went 3 and out against the Carolina Hurricanes.
The team’s lack of speed and pace of play has plagued the Rangers all year. Kreider, Zibanejad, Filip Chytil, K’Andre Miller, and Julien Gauthier are their fastest players, but Chytil and Gauthier don’t log major minutes. The team often plays stationary hockey, rarely moving up ice with any momentum. The fourth line is a solid grinding line provided they get into the offensive zone.
The Rangers have a few holes to fill to be serious contenders. A right-wing to play with Ryan Strome and Panarin along with depth defensemen. Kaapo Kakko began the season with Strome and Panarin but they struggled a bit then hit their stride. They were playing excellent, but head coach Gerrard Gallant changed up the lines. All signs pointed to Kakko rejoining that line after the pause, but due to an injury to Kakko, they need to find another player.
The main question is if Igor can stay healthy? He has always been in shared net duties throughout his professional career, never eclipsing 39 games played. He is now the number one goalie on a team and carrying a heavier workload. It’s also worth reminding that he has missed games in each of his three seasons due to injury.
The Rangers have had issues protecting the lead, but that seems to be the way things are in today’s NHL. It is disturbing to squander multiple-goal leads but they are not alone. Gallant is aware, was not concerned, but has given it more attention in recent weeks.
The Rangers are winning games. Finding a way to win can galvanize a team and make them believe. They have banked points to provide themselves with a strong cushion once they hit that bump in the road that all teams experience. Goaltending has been spectacular with Igor Shesterkin leading the way. Backup, Alexandar Georgiev struggled early but has played excellent while Igor was out with an injury and is trying to get back into a groove. It is not an easy job being called upon once a week, but he needs to get back to the way he played in Igor’s absence.
Another reason for the strong start is that the powerplay is sizzling. Kreider provides a net-front presence as he has for years. Screens and drawing the attention from netminders and defenders do not appear on the score sheet but are vital in a potent powerplay. Kreider is one of the best at tips and deflections and this year everything seems to find the back of the net. The penalty kill has also been near the top ten all season long but dipped a bit lately. That could be fatigue setting in as they played 8 games in 14 days.
Trouba has been outstanding. His physical play is outstanding along with chipping in offensively and logging heavy minutes. Trouba is tasked with being the caddy for a 2nd-year defenseman, K’Andre Miller. Miller has had his up’s and downs, going through spurts of fantastic play then having a tough game or two. Having Trouba on his right side is vital to Miller’s growth. Adam Fox continues to prove last season was not a fluke. He has improved his skating speed and his hockey IQ is off the charts. How he handles the physical nature of the playoffs remains to be seen as teams have targeted him often this season. Long time partner from the USNDT, Ryan Lindgren provides steady, stay at home, physical play along with a strong offensive game when needed.
The Rangers became a more physical team this off-season. GM Chris Drury added that element through a series of trades and free-agent signings. Physicality and being tough to play against are more than hitting the opponent. It boils down to puck battles and fighting for position in the dirty areas which is something they have done all year.
Never count this team out. They have been resilient all season, having several come-from-behind victories. They do not quit, play hard, and do not back down from any opponent. The addition of Ryan Reaves has paid dividends. The team appears to be relaxed, having fun, and having great chemistry.
Having the third-youngest team in the league the Rangers find themselves in prime playoff contention. The long pause ends on Tuesday, February 15th against the Boston Bruins. They will have ten games in the next 28 days. They need at least 2 more depth defensemen, a right-wing with hands and a depth forward with speed. Drury has ample deadline space but not much wiggle room to take back a player with a substantial contract beyond this season. The deadline should be fun but not one in which the future is mortgaged for rental players.
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