The Rangers are off to a flying 8-3-0 record, and are second in the league with 16 points. They’ve won six of their last seven, and have dismantled some good teams in the process, including the Capitals, Lightning, Blues and the surprising Oilers last night. In the process they’ve put together a 7-1-0 record at MSG, with the only a 2-1 defeat to the Detroit Red Wings.
By contrast the Blueshirts have only had to play three games on the road, with . Their 1-2-0 record is identical to the Chicago Blackhawks, who along with the Rangers, have played the fewest road games of any team in the league.
The heavily weighted schedule has no doubt been a boon to the team early in the year. MSG has become a tough place for opponents to win in the past three seasons, with New York posting a 59-22-9 record going back to the 2014-15 season. On the road over the same period, they’ve been a respectable 48-30-7 though most of that was a result of their team record 28-11-2 in 2014-15.
With the schedule the way it is – only seven of the remaining thirtten games this month are on the road – the Rangers have a chance to continue to build momentum and avoid the slump that saw their fast start undone a year ago.
If you will recall, the Blueshirts raced out to a 16-3-2 record in their first twenty games, but finished out the calendar year with a 6-6-2 streak that undone much of their good work. The change in pace ultimately pushed them into the middle of the playoff race, and a first round match-up against the red hot Penguins.
Certainly this year’s team has a number of differences, most obviously lead by an offense that is firing on all cylinders. The team leads the league with 4.09 goals per game, is generating three more shots per game than last season, and has a +20 goal differential, good enough for a share of the league lead with Montreal. Note: 5 of the 45 goals scored were into an empty net, and excluding them would drop the average down to 3.63 a game, still healthy.
The ability for the team to score across the line-up has been a key component of the Rangers success, with no fewer than eight players on pace for 29 goals or more in the season. Nine players are on pace for 60+ points this season, which would be unprecedented on the team.
And remarkably, there’s still room for improvement. Mika Zibanejad has just two goals in his first eleven games as a Ranger, and has had more than his share of near misses. Derek Stepan has no goals yet, unusual for a consistent 20 goal scorer, and on the blueline only last year’s maligned duo of Marc Staal and Dan Girardi have tallied for a total of three goals in the season to date.
Despite these inidividual areas, history tells us the overall pace is not sustainable, and with 39 of the remaining 71 games on the road, you’d expect some moderation to occur over the course of the season.
Which brings us to the defensive side of the equation. Remarkably the Rangers sit fifth in the league in goals allowed, with just 2.27 goals given up each game, even while they’ve allowed three or more goals in five of the contest to date. To put that into perspective, they allowed three or more in just five of the first twenty one games last season when you exclude shootout losses.
In two of those instances – against the Islanders and Sharks – the Rangers already had three goal leads and perhaps eased up a little allowing their opposition to add one or two bonus goals, while two others came against offensively gifted teams in the Capitals and Oilers.
Last year’s hot start was largely backstopped by the performance of Henrik Lundqvist, who stopped an impressive 94.9% of the shots he faced, while allowing just 1.67 goals a game. This year he’s below his career average with just a 91.3% save percentage and a close to career average of 2.24 goals a game.
The difference is mostly a direct reflection of the way Lundqvist is playing, and if the offense should drop off, it would become an area of concern. That’s not to say it’s all on Lundqvist, the Rangers have depressed the shot count from 30.4 last year to 26.6 this year, ranking them fourth in the NHL, which often has the effect of hurting a goalie’s save percentage. They’re also generating more offensive pressure in the oppoition zone, with a three shot improvement the other way, keeping the puck out of the defensive zone for longer periods.
Add to that, a league leading fewest penalty minutes per game – 6:38 – which is almost two minutes fewer per game, and a forward unit that is better committed to coming back, and the Rangers are finding a way to get the job done.
There’s little question that the Rangers – and Lundqvist – will be looking for improvements as the ratio of road games increases. The pressure will increase on the road to play more conservatively to counter the modest advantages that a home team has.
If Lundqvist, and Raanta to a lesser extent, can ramp up the goaltending, then the team has an insurance policy that can sustain themr through the inevitable return to a more sustainable scoring level. Lundqvist has done it before, but at 34 years old, it’s getting to the time of his career when people start wondering how much longer he can be an elite goaltender.
The Rangers depth on offense has relieved the pressure early on, and may yet represent his best chance at the elusive title he came to North America to secure.