by Paul West
Ladies and gentlemen, this isn’t the same New York Rangers.
The blueshirts began last season transitioning from the clamp-down slog mentality espoused by John Tortorella to the more skill-driven mentality of Alain Vigneault. They struggled at first, but once they put it together they were a balanced, dangerous two-way team that could lock up their zone and attack in transition. This versatility, along with the two-headed monster of “King” Henrik Lundqvist and Cam Talbot in goal, propelled them to the Stanley Cup Finals. The Rangers were fourth in goals allowed and only tied for eighteenth in goals scored during the regular season; but because of exceptional team speed and playmakers like Derek Stepan, along with the all-around catalyst that was Mats Zuccarello, the Rangers were a dangerous transition team that could score in bunches. They were balanced and tenacious, and one of the best multidimensional threats in the NHL. And they came within a few close games of winning their first Stanley Cup since 1994.
As 2015 began, the Rangers struggled out of the gate once again. But this time, the problems were different. They had added a scary array of young talent, including Anthony Duclair and Jesper Fast. They lost key players to injuries for long stretches. And they had to learn to orient their new parts into a system that had, as of the end of last season, begun to click in all phases.
In recent days, the Rangers seem to be clicking again and winning games. But they’re clicking in a different way.
The Rangers have figured out their timing and are once again ferocious in transition; they race up the ice after turnovers, tic-tac-toe passing all the way to the opposing faceoff circle. They spend more time pressuring the front of the net, which was perhaps their biggest challenge for much of last season. Duclair’s instincts are as phenomenal as his wrist shot and quick release, and he and Fast seem like the real deal. And once-beleaguered Rick Nash is playing like an elite player again, with a whopping 16 goals before the end of November. Nash has been fantastic to watch, combining size, fluidity and puckhandling ability as well as a fearless nose for the net and an air of confidence he hasn’t had in ages. He’s playing with speed, skill and conviction, and the Rangers are becoming a juggernaut on offense.
Of course, their new style carries hazards. The Rangers have risen to ninth in the league in goals per game, but they’re still fifteenth in goals allowed. This means, basically, that they’re the reverse of what they were under John Tortorella. They’re a fireworks show in transition, and when they play with confidence, they seem to move the puck around at will. They have multiple players with top-notch speed, all of whom play with smarts, hustle and unselfishness. Before long, they’ll once again be one of the best transition teams in the NHL. Unfortunately, the reason teams like the Tampa Bay Lightning give them trouble is that they, too, have speed in transition. This can be a serious problem for the fast-break oriented Rangers; if they get too trigger-happy in their own zone, looking for outlet passes and breakouts, then teams with a solid forecheck and good transition attack can exploit them. Of course, they still have an elite goalie tandem behind them. But if they don’t play with more patience and discipline in the defensive zone, they’ll abandon Lundqvist and Talbot too often to be successful against teams like the Lightning.
The Rangers are looking fast, aggressive and balanced, they play downhill and attack in transition, and all of their lines can score. They have a two-headed monster in net and their netminders keep them in games with heroics while they win 4-2 and 5-3. But the new-look New York Rangers will only regain their elite status when their play in their own zone gets more consistent. If that happens, they’ll be even better than they were last year, at which point the sky’s the limit.