by Paul West
Earlier this season, the New York Rangers looked a lot like the team that made a thrilling run to the 2014 Stanley Cup Finals. They were tough in all three zones, assertive in both creases, and dangerous on the power play; they fired video-game passes through crossed-up defenders and hung football numbers on the scoreboard, and Henrik Lundqvist defended their net in stellar fashion–and even when he slumped or showed fatigue, the Rangers still won.
No longer is this the case.
The Rangers have continued to find different ways to win games; but far too often, they also find curious ways to lose them. Their old problem of lack of assertion in front of the net–either net–has returned, coupled with a tendency toward defensive-zone turnovers. This forces Lundqvist, and lately Antti Raanta, to perform minor hockey miracles to keep them in games. Rick Nash has rediscovered his three-zone game, and is driving downhill toward opposing goaltenders; Michael Grabner continues to show his explosiveness in transition; and the Rangers are always a scoring threat, on account of pure talent and depth. But their line combinations continue to shuffle, and an infuriating inclination to look for the video game pass turns plausible scoring chances into odd-man rushes for the other side. Ryan McDonagh often seems to forget what a scoring threat he is when he shoots the puck; and Mats Zuccarello is the living embodiment of the above problem, at times passing up chances to shoot from as close as inside the faceoff circle. In fairness, Zucc’s game vision and passing ability at times supernatural, and it must be tempting to always play to that strength; but he’s also got quickness, surprising strength for his frame, and a decent ability to snipe. When he combines all of these attributes, he force-multiplies any line he’s on–and when he doesn’t, the offense suffers. Meanwhile, the defensive contingent–aside from the pleasant surprise Brady Skej has been–has been disappointing and often discombobulated. Too many clearable pucks stop at the Rangers’ blue line or drift around just outside the Rangers’ crease; too many opposing forechecks are allowed to cycle around in the corners for prolonged, exhausting stretches; too many opposing wingers are allowed access to rebounds that would be neutralized if Rangers defenders simply, to borrow from basketball parlance, found a body to box out. These are all problems which can’t be allowed to persist, if the Rangers aim to finally complete the journey they’ve been so close to finishing these past few years.
Make no mistake: the sky isn’t falling for the Rangers. They’re still a dangerous, deep, and talented team, with youth, playoff experience, and elite goaltending. Perhaps most importantly, they’re one of the best road teams in the NHL this season (another potential problem, given that Madison Square Garden‘s home ice has often been a boon for the blueshirts), and it appears they’ve got a potentially favorable first-round draw in the erratic Montreal Canadiens. But right now, the Rangers aren’t yet in championship form.