by Paul West
First things first: a six-game win streak is good, however you slice it, and the New York Rangers are happy to be on a roll. Their streak includes wins over some of the toughest opponents in the league: the Maple Leafs, the Devils, the Avalanche, and the Golden Knights, with road wins against the latter two. This is especially welcome after a woeful stretch in which they lost five of six, struggled in all phases of the game, and looked nothing like the team that came within a few games of the Stanley Cup Final just a year ago.
Unfortunately, even during these wins they’ve sometimes eye-tested as a team ripe for an early playoff exit. Much of their success–though not as much as earlier in the season–has depended on individual feats of greatness: Chris Kreider flashing back to last season, Mika Zibanejad showing why he’s finally discussed as one of the best two-way centers in the game, Artemi Panarin weaving magic in traffic, Igor Shesterkin as one-man band, flashes of brilliance from Adam Fox. Meanwhile they’ve given up untimely goals, they’ve struggled to defend the front of their net, they sometimes just can’t seem to clear their blue line, and they continue to commit maddening turnovers in the neutral and defensive zones.
Perhaps most troubling of all is their tendency to get pushed around in corners and along the boards, which has greatly contributed to the above. First, it leads to penalties: physically overmatched and/or tired players tend to rely on sticks, hands, and outbursts of force to impose their will, leading to trips, holds, slashes, and crosschecks. Second, it lends itself to turnovers: desperate to clear the zone, they get creative in situations where creativity is best reserved for the power play or the end of a sustained offensive-zone cycle. Third, it gives opposing teams confidence and momentum: just play downhill against us, and something will spring a leak sooner than later. These are all problems they dealt with in the first half of last year, before acquisitions like Andrew Copp gave them more of a downhill element and players like Ryan Reaves helped them play heavier on their skates without resorting to penalties. it was also before Kreider finally actualized his fully hockey potential, as a downhill freight train with a true scorer’s touch around the net.
Copp and Reaves are gone, but there’s still reason to believe they can truly put it all together and make another late-spring run for the Cup. The key, as many have pointed out, is sustained contribution from their so-called ‘kids’: Alexis Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko, K’Andre Miller, Vitali Kravtsov, and the recently emergent Braden Schneider. The fact that I just listed so many names, while certainly leaving out a few, is perhaps the biggest cause for hope–because if the Rangers are going to outlast the other most talented teams in the league, it won’t solely be on the backs of their big names.
For most of this season, the Rangers have mystified and frustrated their supporters. Aside from individual feats of greatness–Mika Zibanejad willing them onto the scoreboard, Artemi Panarin weaving magic with the puck, Chris Kreider flashing back to last season, Igor Shesterkin playing one-man band–they’ve steadily found new ways to