by Paul West
The New York Rangers continued their hot play today, rebounding from an early deficit to beat the Ottawa Senators 4-1 in Ottawa. The Rangers now have the second most road wins in the National Hockey league, and are 7-2-1 in their last ten games. Many aspects of this game were reflections of recent trends and signposts of a hopeful future.
Improved skill play
In recent seasons, even during their more successful periods, the Rangers have frustrated their fans with low goal outputs despite having an abundance of speed on the wings and highly skilled players. Previous coach John Tortorella emphasized defense and shot blocking, but this approach had two primary problems: a lack of assertiveness on offense, and an excessive reliance on goaltender play. Two years ago, when the Rangers narrowly missed winning the President’s Cup trophy for the NHL’s best regular season record, it was mainly on the strength of winning low-scoring games. Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was outrageously good, making spectacular save after spectacular save and often seeming to win games entirely by himself. The primary problem with this is the low margin for error; if Lundqvist, or solid backup Martin Biron, had an off day, it seemed the Rangers were in trouble. Another issue, which had Madison Square Garden fans apoplectic by year’s end, was the woeful inability to put consistent pressure on opposing goalies. If the other team’s netminder made a few great saves, the Rangers really struggled to score. This was because Tortorella’s coaching style left the skill players little room to operate on the fly, leaving them obviously out of rhythm and constantly relying on perfect passes and plays to score–it was either tic-tac-toe goals or nothing. Highly skilled players like Brad Richards and Rick Nash often seemed frustrated, and Tortorella seemed frustrated with them.
Under new coach Alain Vigneault, the Rangers’ offense has increased its fluidity. Vigneault’s approach to offensive fluidity is decidedly different from that of Tortorella, as evidenced by this quote:
“I believe your top skilled players have to be given a little more latitude…they have to understand the game, they have to understand the time in the game where you need to play higher percentage but they also have to be given that latitude to make something out of nothing…”
This increased freedom has not only allowed Nash, Richards and others to flourish, but interestingly, it has also produced more of the kinds of perfect tic-tac-toe plays they seemed overly in search of under Tortorella. When skill players are relaxed, they are more precise, and the Rangers have produced a number of highlight-reel passes this season, especially in recent weeks. Their power play has seemed like less of a liability, and they seem more confident and less disjointed on offense. This has both been the result of, and greatly facilitated, increased team assertiveness on offense.
Increased puck possession and offensive pressure
In recent seasons, the new York Rangers often went long stretches without establishing a presence in front of the opponent’s goal. This resulted in less putback goals, less shots on goal in general, and a decreased sense of pressure on the other team’s defense. If a goalie left a loose rebound, it was covered up or swept away. With relatively rare exception, Brian Boyle seemed to be the only Ranger inclined to create traffic in front of the net and give the offense rebounds and second chances. This season, the Rangers’ are more assertive with the puck, they possess the puck longer, and have someone in front of the crease more often. This has resulted in more prolonged and dangerous flurries in the offensive zone, and has in turn increased their playmakers’ fluidity and apparent confidence. Increasingly popular winger Mats Zuccarello has added striking ice vision and improved playmaking skills to his bowling-ball approach to forechecking, which has become contagious amongst his teammates when the Rangers attempt to apply offensive pressure. Newcomers like Benoit Pouilot and Daniel Carcillo have added another dimension the Rangers had previously lacked, which has dovetailed nicely with their improved offensive rhythm and puck possession: physicality.
Improved forechecking and line depth
Pouliot and Carcillo are not just one dimensional bangers; they provide the Rangers’ offense with a combination of offensive ability and muscle in the corners. Carcillo is a player around whom good things seem to happen around the opposing net, and Pouliot is a big man who has some speed and can help generate offense. The Rangers now can produce offense from more than just their top line, which means they are able to generate offense for more than just short bursts. Their improved forechecking and post-up pressuring has also manifested itself in an important dimension: they are no longer a team that’s easy to push around. In recent seasons, teams like the Boston Bruins and Ottawa Senators would attempt to bully the Rangers up and down the ice, throwing them out of rhythm and hassling their skill players while controlling the flow of the game and keeping their own crease clear. Make no mistake: the Rangers had some grit. The problem was, their grit was only in the area of shot-blocking. This is an important, and overlooked, element of the game, and reflective of the tough-guy mentality of coach Tortorela–but it rarely seemed to show itself when the Rangers had the puck. It often seemed like the Rangers were always trying to win 1-0 or 2-1, which isn’t a bad approach unless it’s the only way you’re able to win. Under Vigneault, the Rangers still block shots and show solid defense in their zone. But now they don’t get pushed around as easily, and they assert themselves on the other side of the blue line and dictate the flow of play. Their increased downhill assertiveness on offense is neither reckless nor sloppy, and it remains well protected, as the Rangers have improved upon their already strong goaltending.
Two-headed monster in goal
After struggling in the first few months of the season, Henrik Lundqvist has returned to the form that recently inspired the Rangers to sign him to a 7-year deal. Behind him, Cam Talbot has been a brick wall all season. He acquired his tenth win in today’s game in Ottawa, and has a 1.88 goals against average with a .936 save percentage this season. A strong 1-2 punch can prevent either goalie from burning out over the course of the season, and it will make the Rangers more of a threat in the playoffs.
Last but not least, the Rangers seem to be improving in their consistency. Instead of following strong periods with weak ones, they recover from brief lapses and are able to regain their flow before slumps get too long. In today’s victory, the Senators scored the first goal early and controlled the tempo for much of the first period. The Rangers not only recovered, but took full control of the game. They strung combined all of their strengths, blocking shots and controlling tempo and protecting their net and pressuring the opposing net. Meanwhile, Cam Talbot played a strong game, the only goal coming on a screened shot.
The Rangers recently beat the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in their own stadium; today in Ottawa they dominated a team that has bedeviled them in the recent past. They have the necessary combination of parts to be a legitimate playoff threat, and lately they have shown their potential. But it bears remembering that this is the team that struggled to hover around .500 until only weeks ago. Vaigneault has suggested that the team’s early struggles were simply growing pains, as he and his new players learned each other. They have finally seemed to adapt to his more flexible style, playing with greater toughness and fluidity without losing their discipline. This new-look Rangers team is a multidimensional threat with top-notch goaltending and a coach who knows how to win. It remains to be seen whether this new sense of themselves is a flash of brilliance or a lasting change.