The New York Rangers have found themselves on a bit of a roll the last month. Is it time to start taking them seriously, or will their playoff bubble pop?
Heading into the All-Star break, the New York Rangers sat with 50 points, placing them 25th in the league and 11 points back from the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. The playoffs didn’t even register on their radar as they looked to be in full “sell” mode just a month away from the trade deadline.
Now, despite losing their last three games, the Rangers have emerged as one of the league’s hottest teams since the All-Star break, sporting a 12-6-0 record and tied for the fifth-most points (24) during that span. The team has boasted an average of 3.28 goals per game, a plus-12 goal differential in this run and at one point, rattled off a franchise-record nine-straight road wins.
A month removed from dreaming of a lottery pick, the Rangers are now four points back of the Columbus Blue Jackets for the last wild card spot in the East with a game in-hand.
Naturally, this has fostered playoff hopes among many in Rangerdom amid what was supposed to be a rebuilding season. Supported by hot goaltending, a core of young defensemen and a prospective Hart trophy candidate, the Rangers have people asking, “are they really going to make the playoffs?” Let’s take a look.
Making the case
Under the blinding lights of Broadway, the Rangers superstars — Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider — are shining through. The trio, though not always together on the ice, are playing their best hockey at just the right time. Though Panarin and Zibanejad have been fairly dominant the whole season, in their last 18 games the two have raised their play to MVP-like levels.
Panarin has scored six goals and 16 assists while Zibanejad has notched a staggering 15 goals and 12 assists. Prior to his injury — which we’ll touch on later — Kreider had regained his scoring touch, racking up 18 goals in his last 35 games after scoring just five in his previous 21.
Much of this damage has been done on the power play, which has clocked in at a lethal 30 percent. That’s an increase of nearly 8.5 percentage points from before the break, good for second in the NHL behind the Edmonton Oilers in that time.
The team has also been bolstered by the emergence of their young defensemen. Rookie Adam Fox is looking like a kid with potential and Tony DeAngelo is having a breakout season, tied for seventh in the league in goals among defensemen with 13. Two pieces that are cornerstones of the team’s rebuild are already paying dividends.
Finally, the rise of Igor Shesterkin as the team’s number one goalie and heir apparent to Henrik Lundqvist has been perhaps the biggest reason New Yorkers have playoffs on their minds. The rookie netminder from Russia has a 9-1-0 record in his first 10 games with a gaudy 2.23 goals-against average and .930 save percentage.
Shesterkin’s arrival couldn’t come at a better time, as Lundqvist’s reign as “King” may be coming to an end. Though he has missed the team’s last handful of games due to a rib injury suffered in a car accident with teammate Pavel Buchnevich, the young goalie may be ahead of schedule in terms of his recovery time, which would be good news for the New York faithful. Unfortunately, this leads us to one of the biggest reasons why the Rangers playoff hopes may be farfetched.
A second opinion
It’s almost impossible not to tie the Rangers’ resurgence to the fantastic play of Shesterkin. Though Alexandar Georgiev and Lundqvist have tended the twine admirably this season, Shesterkin has been on another level.
In his absence, the Rangers have gone 2-3-0, allowing three goals or more in all but one of those games — including allowing five to the roaring Philadelphia Flyers twice. This can’t be pinned all on the goaltenders, as the Rangers were on the wrong side of the Corsi battle in three of the five games, but there are situations at this point in the season where the team just needs its goalie to make a stop.
Coupled with the loss of Kreider for the rest of the season, the Rangers are down two of the most important catalysts for their success moving forward.
Taking a step back from the players they don’t have on the ice, perhaps the biggest indictment on why the Rangers may not have a playoff push within them may be uncovered by looking at their underlying metrics.
As mentioned earlier, the Rangers have hit a bit of a rut. After back-to-back dismantlings by the Flyers and a 3-1 loss to the defending champs in St. Louis, the Rangers have now lost three in a row. Having faced two legit contenders in a row and come up quite short, the Rangers may be crashing back down to Earth.
Though the Rangers have been lethal on the power play in the last 18 games since the All-Star break, their even-strength metrics show a different story. According to Hockey Reference, the team has posted a 48.0 Corsi-for percentage since the All-Star break, placing them 24th in the league. Though it’s an improvement from their season average of 46.4, it’s still not nearly good enough moving forward.
Also, according to Sean Tierney of Charting Hockey, the Rangers PDO — which measures teams by the sum of their shooting and save percentages — is hovering just above the mean of 100, largely due to (potentially) unsustainable goaltending.
If fancy stats aren’t your thing, more common statistics also paint an underwhelming picture of the Rangers. Since the break, their penalty kill has been a dismal 76.6 percent, they’ve allowed 33.5 shots per game (sixth-most in the NHL) and they’re consistently getting crushed in the face-off dot (45.5 percent, second-worst in the league).
Combine all these factors — plus their current 25.3 percent playoff odds, according to Money Puck — and what was a great story may be coming to an end.
Not over till it’s over
So what do we make of the Rangers?
Are they the squad that has dazzled with their skill, speed and offensive firepower, or are they the young team that has at times been exposed by older, more seasoned groups during large stretches of the season? Sometimes, they’re both.
Either way, the Rangers are writing a great story. We’ll see if it turns out to be a triumph or tragedy.
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