Mats Zuccarello (Jared Silber/NHL)
Even without one of the league’s best goaltenders in Henrik Lundqvist, the New York Rangers have been on a roll. The Eastern Conference is wide open, so don’t be surprised if the Rangers are right back in the Stanley Cup final this season.
When Henrik Lundqvist was sidelined early-February by a throat injury, there were those who wondered if the Rangers would be able to keep pace in the Metropolitan Division. Those questions have been answered, and the answer is an emphatic, “Yes.”
Not only have the Rangers kept pace, they’ve been well over .500, winning nine of their 13 contests and picking up at least a point in 11 games. In their last ten games, only one loss has been in regulation and, with three games in hand on the division-leading Islanders, the Rangers sit just two points back of taking over the lead in the division.
What should make the Eastern Conference even more wary of the Rangers – a squad that just last season came only three wins shy of the Stanley Cup – is that the Blueshirts are as good as they were in 2013-14. Truthfully, they might be even better.
Since Lundqvist left the Rangers lineup on Feb. 4, the team has gone 9-2-2 while running with Cam Talbot between the pipes. While certainly not a knock against Talbot, he’s not Lundqvist, one of the NHL’s premier netminders. But Talbot’s play since Lundqvist’s injury hasn’t been up to snuff, which has allowed the Rangers to show just how powerful they can be.
In nine of the 13 games that Talbot has appeared in, the Rangers have surrendered three or more goals. Their 36 goals against without Lundqvist is the 10th highest total in the league over since Feb. 4. However, the team has managed a goal differential of plus-10 over those 13 outings, tied for the third highest over that span, and have the most goals for, 46, of any team since Lundqvist’s injury.
In some sense, you can call the last 13 game span a statement from the Rangers, too. Without their number one goaltender, New York has posted a 5-on-5 Corsi For percentage – or unblocked shot attempts percentage, if you please – of 53.6 percent, the sixth best mark in the NHL. On top of that, at 5-on-5, they’ve had the lion’s share of the scoring chances with 51.9 percent of the opportunities going in their favor.
Maintaining healthy possession and scoring chance rates, meaning rates above 50 percent, are going to be key to the Rangers’ success. And, truthfully, playing so well is what has made their offense so formidable. It also doesn’t hurt that New York is shooting 10.6 percent at 5-on-5 and currently boasts the sixth-highest 5-on-5 PDO – combined shooting and save percentage – in the league at 102.2.
Though both their shooting percentage and PDO are bound to slip, it shouldn’t be by such a significant amount as to worry the Blueshirts and their fans. If anything, their play speaks volumes about what maintaining positive possession rates can do for them going forward. And, after the trade deadline, they’ve only gotten better.
By acquiring Keith Yandle from the Arizona Coyotes, the team landed an offensive defenseman that can move the puck better than many blueliners in the league. Yandle maintained a positive Corsi For percentage relative to his teammates while skating on a terrible Coyotes team. He’s going to have an immediate impact on the Rangers power play, help the team skate out of trouble and be able to move the puck up ice for a team that needs a defenseman who can do so.
And on top of acquiring Yandle, the Rangers were able to keep Mats Zuccarello, one of the best possession players on their entire roster. Zuccarello signed a four-year, $18 million contract Sunday after a week of speculation that he could have been dealt at the deadline. Though, he’s having a rougher year offensively, keeping Zuccarello means the Rangers are committed to winning in their current window, with a healthy Lundqvist and a roster that currently boasts veteran leaders like Martin St-Louis and Dan Boyle.
That's without even mentioning Rick Nash. Nash, in his third season with New York, is having arguably the best season of his career. In 60 games this season, Nash already has 37 goals, and with 21 games left in the season there's a possibility he could have the first 50-goal season of his career. That at his age 30 season Nash is on pace to pot 50 goals means the Rangers have the offensive juggernaut that they had been hoping to get. And, now, with the experience of a deep playoff run last season, all that's left for Nash to do is take his regular season performance into the playoffs.
And the Rangers are going to be playoff bound, of that we’re sure. How deep they get will depend on their ability to keep driving possession and do it against their incredibly tight division while getting production from their big names. If the Rangers can make it out of the Metropolitan – which will likely mean beating one or both of the Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins – a date with the Atlantic Division winner is going to be a treat to watch, and one that you could expect Lundqvist to be at his best in.
But if you’re sleeping on the Rangers in an Eastern Conference that boasts powerhouses in Tampa Bay, Detroit and a red-hot, Carey Price-led Montreal, it might be time to stop. Because if the last 13 games are any indication, if they lose one piece, the rest of the team is going to step up and cause havoc in the East.