The New York Rangers have won five straight and are starting to look like a threat in the Metropolitan Division once again, but one thing might be holding them back from continuing their climb up the standings: goaltending.
Through their first eight games of the season, the New York Rangers won once, collected four points and sat right at the very bottom of the Metropolitan Division. The offense was mediocre, the goaltending awful and the blueline was continually called into question as coach Alain Vigneault’s future appeared to be up in the air. But there’s a reason that teams, especially those so accustomed to regular season success, tend not to panic when things aren’t going the right way out of the gate.
After their dreadful start, things are starting to look up for the Blueshirts. Over their past 10 games, the Rangers have only lost three times – including winning seven of their past nine – and, with Thursday’s victory over the Boston Bruins, are now on a run of five straight wins. The offense, once suspect, has been the most effective in the league over the past three weeks. Defensively, the struggles have slowed and the blueline seems more comfortable than it had in previous contests. And, for the most part, it seems as though the Rangers are out of the woods with the recent hot streak vaulting New York right back into a wild-card position and two points out of top spot in the Metro.
So, what has allowed the Rangers to turn things around so suddenly and swiftly? Well, there are a few factors at work, the biggest of which is that New York’s offense is finally finding some success.
Well into mid-October, New York’s offense was, for the most part, firing blanks. Though Mika Zibanejad was finding twine frequently with five goals in eight outings, there was no other player with more than two tallies and only eight of the 14 forwards the Rangers had used had found the back of the net. Some, like Rick Nash, were hit harder by the slump than others. Despite firing 34 shots on goal through eight games, Nash had one goal, his only point, to show for his efforts. It made for a whopping 2.9-percent success rate for the three-time 40-goal man. David Desharnais, who only had nine shots, was on the other side of the spectrum with two goals and a bloated 22.2 shooting percentage.
Over the past three weeks, however, everything for the Rangers seems to have evened out. Individually, players such as Nash, Chris Kreider, Micheal Grabner and Pavel Buchnevich have been rewarded for firing often, with shooting percentages ranging from 11.5 to 24 percent. And even those directing fewer shots on goal, such as J.T. Miller, Mats Zuccarello and Kevin Hayes, are finding at least a modicum of success. Such an upturn could've been seen coming a mile away, too, as the Rangers were shooting at 5.7 percent at 5-on-5 during their start-of-season slump. That has rocketed up to 9.4 percent over their past nine outings.
Additionally, New York is seeing more success at least in part due to a slight turn in some important underlying metrics. While they’re seeing an almost unnoticeable dip in shots for and Corsi for percentages — less than a full percentage point in both categories — New York has managed to up their 5-on-5 scoring chances for percentage by nearly 2.5 percent. Most of that, too, has come by way of limiting opponents’ chances. In fact, there’s been a decrease of almost 2.5 chances per 60 minutes over the past nine games. That has trickled down slightly to high-danger chances, as well, with New York seeing about a half-percent increase in its high-danger chances for percentage.
The uptick in defensive strength, though, is most noticeable when it comes to the penalty kill. Through the first two weeks of the season, the Rangers were abysmal while shorthanded. Their penalty kill rate was a mere 74.1 percent and, if it seemed like four out of five shots that got through were going in, that’s because that was exactly the case. New York’s netminders combined for a .826 save percentage while shorthanded, which was, at the time, the second-worst mark in the league. Across the past nine outings, though, the Rangers' rates, extrapolated to 60 shorthanded minutes, have dipped by 16 shots against, 8.1 attempts against, 19.6 scoring chances against and 14.8 high-danger chances against. The result is a special teams unit that has allowed only two goals on its past 27 kills and a shorthanded save percentage that has risen by more than 12 points.
If there is any cause for concern, though, it’s that the shorthanded SP is about the only way in which the duo of Henrik Lundqvist and Ondrej Pavelec have improved across the past three weeks. In fact, even in the face of the winning streak, New York’s 5-on-5 SP has actually dropped from .917 to .905 over the past nine games and the downturn can even be seen in base statistics, especially when it comes to Lundqvist. During the tough start, a period in which Lundqvist had a 1-3-2 record, he managed a .905 SP at all strengths and .920 mark at five-a-side. Over these past nine games, he’s sporting SPs of .894 and .904 at all strengths and 5-on-5, respectively. He’s also allowed four or more goals against in three of his past five starts. Pavelec, meanwhile, has seen both of his SP marks rise — .903 at all strengths, .907 at 5-on-5 — but not to levels that inspire much confidence. That puts the Rangers in a position few would have expected.
Early in the season, much of the trade speculation surrounding New York centered on additions to the offense or a piece to bolster the blueline with the belief that Lundqvist, though off to a tough start, would come around. The opposite seems to be the truth one month into the campaign, however. The offense seems to have hit its stride, the blueline seems to be hunkering down, but the goaltending hasn’t been there to go with it. Sure, there’s been greater success on the penalty kill, but when the bulk of the game is playing at five-a-side, it presents a problem. For the past two seasons, it was Antti Raanta who was able to offer some stabilization in the crease. Before him, it was Cam Talbot. But Pavelec, while somehow performing better than Lundqvist, isn’t the answer, and it’s been apparent in the early going that Lundqvist can't do this alone.
So, for all the talk about what New York needs to find on the trade market, and there’s been no shortage of discussion in that regard, adding a solid backup or someone who can at least spell Lundqvist and give the Rangers above-average netminding seems to be what the Blueshirts need most to really turn this ship around entirely. Because while this recent streak is impressive, if the goaltending isn’t there, it stands to fall apart if or when the offense starts to slow down again.
Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.