The Rangers fell to Colorado last in a 4-2 disappointment, but this game really should give hope to every Blueshirt fan. Yes, the possibility of an “easy” two points in a very tight division is gone. But what is more important is that the Rangers were right in this speed and transition contest and that it looks like some of the question marks on the roster will turn out just fine. Of course, it is very early in the season, but there are already indications of what will work and what will not.
First, in evaluating last night’s game, it is important to remember that New York had not played against a real opponent in more than a week (the last pre-season game was in Philadelphia nine days ago). In addition, many of the players who were regulars did not even see the ice in that pre-season contest against the Flyers. So, it had been a long time (too long, in my opinion) since some of the skaters had been on the ice in game conditions.
And, there were three critical pieces of the Rangers lineup last night who had never seen previous ice time with the team. Those three, Kevin Shattenkirk, Filip Chytil, and David Desharnais were getting their sealegs, with vastly different results.
First pairing defenseman Shattenkirk was wearing his hometown uniform before many family and friends (and fans) for the first time, and his nervousness showed. Several misplays in the first period led to turnovers, with passes in teammates’ skates or beyond. He seemed to settle down as the game went along, but last night, Shattenkirk showed that he is only borderline acceptable in the defensive part of the game. On the other hand, he also showed that he has a shot and offensive instincts from the blueline that has not been seen in Madison Square Garden for almost 15 years. As Head Coach Alain Vigneault commented after the game, “[t]here is no doubt that Kevin sees the ice well and finds the open possibilities.”
In addition to his defensive deficits though, is that he seemed to have a negative effect on the play of his defense partner, Ryan McDonagh. Both were -3 last night, and that statistic was reflective of their game together. It will take time for the two of them to get used to playing together and, ultimately, another defensive pairing may be needed. But, what is exciting is that the team finally has a power play quarterback that can make things happen. And they did make it happen. Both of the Rangers’ goals last night were with an extra man on the ice.
Another critical player who had not seen action in New York previously was Chytil. The 18-year-old rookie had a difficult game last night, a game that matched the one he had in Philadelphia last week. There is no doubt that Chytil is incredibly talented offensively, and is a terrific skater, with an outstanding release. He is the Rangers’ best pure sniper. But the physicality of the contests, and the speed of the game (including the required decision-making within that speed) have perplexed him in the last two outings. Last night, in the first period, Chytil had a clear shot at the goal and instead decided to make a pass. It seemed he lost confidence in himself and his game after that. And his face off percentage (which usually is a strength of the young player) was a measly 16.7% over the course of the night.
Then there is the physical issue. Except for specific incidents, last night was not much of a physical game. That suits Chytil’s game, but in Philadelphia, it appeared that he was very much affected when the game turns physical. This level of competition is new to Chytil, and there is no question that he will need to build more strength in his body to be able to take the pounding that night after night of NHL play requires. The question is whether he can play here while going through that physical growth and game experience. He will get some more games here this season, but if there is no change, Chytil and the team would be best off sending him back to continue his development upon the return of Jesper Fast.
But, even without Chytil, there is much reason for optimism after last night’s game. Another standout last night was newcomer David Desharnais. Quietly centering the fourth line, he won seven of 11 of his face offs, and created chances all over the ice.
So, there were mixed results among newcomers individually last night. But, even with those mixed results, certain patterns were plainly apparent, good patterns that signal positive changes in the Rangers as a team.
In an interesting turn of events, that has everything to do with the arrival of Shattenkirk, both of the Rangers two goals last night came with the extra man. In fact, the power play was dynamic, with great ability to move the puck around. How many years has it been since we have seen that? Yes, it was only one game, and against the Avalanche at that, but this will be a more exciting and dangerous power play than Rangers’ fans have seen in years.
And when was the last time you saw the Rangers’ face off percentage in a game top 60%. Last night, the team was 35 for 55; yes, 64 percent of the face offs were won by New York. The best face off man last night was Mika Zibanejad, who won 18 of 24 battles. He was outstanding in other areas of the game too. With both goals, he used his outstanding shot well, went into the high traffic areas, and did not shy away from two-way play. The best Ranger on the ice by far, if last night was any indication, Mika will be a much more than adequate replacement for Derek Stepan as a first-line center. With the most ice time among forwards, Zibanejad gave a glimpse that he is ready for this role.
First liner Chris Kreider went to the net, screened Avs Goalie Semyon Varlamov very well, and dished out four hits. His game continues to improve. But Mika’s other first line winger, Pavel Buchnevich, did not do well on the right side. He gave the puck away twice, generally was ineffective with his shot, and had trouble getting to where he needed to be. Buchnevich is the wild card in this lineup, with the offensive potential to be great. But if he does not improve his game, Buchnevich will need to be in more of a bottom six role for this team to be a contender.
Finally, in somewhat of a surprise, Marc Staal, who has been relegated to third pairing D, was excellent in his game last night. Staal was very effective in his hits, he blocked shots, and was the perfect foil for his partner Tony DeAngelo, who is still learning the ropes on the back end.
New York’s next game is tomorrow night in Toronto, where they face an offensive dynamo of a team that won their Wednesday opener in Winnipeg by a score of 7-2.