The New York Rangers have been atop of the Eastern Conference for most of the year, but over the past three weeks they’ve opened up some breathing room. A three-game win streak that was culminated with a 3-2 win over Washington yesterday means that the Ranges now lead Philadelphia & Pittsburgh by eight points in the Atlantic Division, and are plus-seven on Boston in the Eastern Conference overall. New York is going to be tough to catch for the top seed in the playoffs, so TheSportsNotebook is giving them a closer look today, particularly at their recent streak where they’ve won seven of nine.
Let’s start with an overall profile of the team. New York lives and dies with its goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist, who’s save rate is 93.9% and has put him at the forefront of MVP discussion. My vote still goes to Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh, but I can’t argue that Lundqvist is a credible candidate. New York is second in the league in goals allowed, and that’s in spite of ranking ninth in shots allowed. What this suggests is that we have a defensive team pretty good in its own right, accompanied by a great goaltender. That’s the kind of combination that sets up victory parades in June.
New York has two big weapons offensively and both operate on the right wing, with Marian Gaborik and Ryan Callahan. The opposite wing is a big weakness, while the Rangers are adequate at center. Derek Stepan is functionable and Brad Richards is respectable, particularly in passing, a skill even more important on a team where the wingers rely on being set up in positions to score.
Where New York has shown problems over the course of the year is on the power play, where they are awful, and in generating shots. In spite of Gaborik and Callahan’s talents, the Rangers are in the bottom third of the NHL in launching shots on goal. They’re still 10th in the bottom line of lighting the lamp, suggesting an ability to create good shots, either through screening the goaltender or crashing for the rebounds, or ideally, both. And for all New York’s problems on the power play, they are very good in the reverse spot, when it’s time to kill a penalty.
Now let’s go into the specifics of this streak, which started on January 21. New York got a 3-2 in Boston in a game televised by the NHL Network on a Saturday afternoon. Lundqvist and Tim Thomas had a great goaltenders battle, with each team getting 30-plus shots, and it going to overtime at 2-2. New York won in an unexpected way—a power play goal with four seconds left in overtime. Callahan and Gaborik combined to score all three goals.
From there, the Rangers came home at shut out Winnipeg, with Callahan scoring a goal and delivering an assist. On January 31, the key to beating New York in this recent stretch was brought to light. It wasn’t any piece of strategic wizardry. It just involved putting the New Jersey Devils on the ice. The Devils are the only team to beat the Rangers over the last nine games, getting this one in the shootout session at 4-3. Lundqvist showed some cracks, as the defense only allowed 29 shots on goal. The goalie came back strong against Buffalo the following night in a 1-0 shootout win, where he turned back all 34 Sabres shots.
On Super Bowl Sunday, with other activities occupying Big Apple sports fan, the Rangers got the first of what would be two key games with Philadelphia during this streak, and used three third-period goals to beat Philly 5-2. The performance was dominating, as they generated 38 shots and Stephan stepped up with two assists. Two nights later came the second Devils’ loss, a 1-0 affair with Martin Brodeur going to the Fountain Of Youth and coming up with the big win over Lundqvist.
Lundqvist was shaky this past Thursday, February 9, against Tampa at home. The Lightning only got 17 shots, but three found the back of the net. An early power-play goal from Callahan helped put the game into overtime, where the Rangers survived 4-3.
Then came this past weekend. Another 5-2 win over Philly went down on Saturday, this one on the road. The defensive performance fell in line with the season-long trend. The Flyers assaulted Lundqvist, with 33 shots (compared to 26 for New York), and the goalie mostly turned them back. The offensive performance decidedly did not fall into the season-long pattern. The power play was dominant, getting seven chances and cashing in three. Then yesterday’s 3-2 win over Washington in MSG was a fairly evenly played affair, but New York’s superior penalty kill team turned the tide on the Caps and got a shorthanded goal early in the third period to help put the game out of reach.
If you’re a Rangers fan, you have to like what you’ve seen these past three weeks and not just for the obvious reason that your team is winning. New York is showing an ability to win even when their ideal game plan breaks down. They’ve won with power play scoring. They’ve won when Lundqvist hasn’t been at his best. They’ve gotten good team defensive games. And when three of your nine games are against Philadelphia and Boston it’s not as though you’ve hit a soft spot in the schedule. New York is for real as a Stanley Cup contender and will be a deserving favorite in the East.