Eighteen games in, and the New York Rangers find themselves back in the mix for a playoff spot. It's only early days, but the 2-8-2 record through the first 12 games really put them on the back foot and called into question the future of Head Coach Alain Vigneault, General Manager Jim Gorton and franchise netminder Henrik Lundqvist.
Were the Rangers done after a twelve year stretch where they missed the playoffs only once, and that by a single point in a shootout loss on the last day of the season?
As it turns out, maybe not quite yet, thanks to a 6-0-0 run that includes wins over the league leading Tampa Bay Lightning in Tampa, as well as the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, who currently have the fifth best points per game of any team in the league.
The defense and goaltending remain a work in progress however, with the team giving up the lead on seven occasions over the six game streak, though conversely they have come back from deficits an equal number of times, lead primarily by their power play which has converted 8 of the 19 opportunities it has been presented. In fact the power play has become such a critical part of the offense, registering two goals or more on six occasiosn this year, three times in the last six games.
At the same time, the penalty kill has killed off 13 of the 14 shorthanded scenarios they've faced, a distinct improvement over the previous twelve games, where the Rangers allowed 10 goals on 45 penalties for a kill percentage of just 77.78%.
The margin for error for this team still remains small however, and that's where the challenge lies. The 35 year old Henrik Lundqvist has been responsible for all six of the Ranger wins, with Ondrej Pavelec remaining as a question mark backup. With a 1-3-0 record in four appearances - three starts - Pavelec is yet to prove he can be a reliable goaltender to spell Lundqvist. His 3.64 Goals Against and .877 save percentage are a far cry from the performances of Antti Raanta and Cam Talbot, the two most recent baclkups for New York.
It's certainly not fair to put all the blame on Pavelec, as the defense has been a step below this year Brendan Smith struggling to find his game, and Kevin Shattenkirk a fair downgrade on the defensive side of the puck. Ryan McDonagh's own struggles have contributed to a number of goals against, while sophomore Brady Skjei has yet to find the form that he displayed last year.
Perhaps what's more concerning, is that these same challenges were evident last Spring, when the Rangers struggled to hold leads late in games, especially against the Senators who ultimately made them pay the price by eliminating the Blueshirts. Dispatching Dan Girardi and adding Shattenkirk has only amplified the results, and one wonders what will happen once the current offensive purple patch comes to an end.
Just twice this year, and once over the past six games, have the Rangers held their opposition to two goals or less, their 2-0 win over Montreal early on, and the 2-1 OT win against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Meanwhile, New York has scored two goals or fewer in seven of the eighteen games played this season for a record of 2-5-0.
In games where they've allowed three or more goals, they're 3-7-2, though they did win their last two against Florida (5-4 OT) and Columbus (5-3).
Ultimately the Rangers have worked themselves back into a position where they can reclaim their season after a dismal start. They sit right in the middle 16th position in terms of Standing Points per Game with 55.60% attaintment rate after 18, and just one point behid the Blue Jackets, Capitals and Penguins who sit tied for second in the Metropolitan Division.
It's hard though to keep winning streaks alive, and ultimately it's what the team does after they next lose, or are faced with a tough defensive game which will better define what they have this year. The final seven games of November are a mixed bag of teams who have moderate records. The Senators, Red Wings and Blue Jackets all currently sit in playoff spots, but have 21, 18 and 21 points respectively compared to the 20 that New York has.
Chicago, Vancouver and Carolina are each just two points behind, but the latter two have 1 and 2 games respectively in hand. Florida is the only "easy" game, but took New York to OT in their only meeting this season, a game in which both teams gave up the lead on two occasions.
Of the seven, only the Ottawa Senators really are in any sort of form, and as such the Rantgers should be looking for at least 10 of the 14 points on offer. Anything less and the team runs the risk of giving one of the many other similarly placed teams an opportunity to get ahead again.