The Devils may have lost Friday night’s game to Washington by a score of 5-2, but the team learned quickly, as the very next night, New Jersey showed the Rangers that they can adapt and play the type of game that wins against tight checking/shot blocking teams. The Devils’ biggest issue on Friday night was the team’s failure to adapt to a less run and gun and a more tight north-south game. Sometime during the next 20 hours, however, New Jersey decided to clog up the lanes and play takeaway hockey. And it worked–the Devils were able to walk away from the cross-river rivalry with a 3-2 win.
To be honest, if stats other than goals mattered, the Rangers would have won this game. At several points in the game, New York had over a 65% face off win percentage. And the Blueshirts registered more shots, and more hits. But, New York just gave the puck away over and over again during the game. Although Rangers’ Head Coach Alain Vigneault blamed it on “too many costly turnovers” in the second period, which could be prevented by “better decision making,” that statement gives the Devils too little credit for their style of play.
Clogging up the lanes and employing active sticks is what stops teams like the Rangers and the Capitals. The Devils, a young team and used to the run and gun game of Toronto (who they faced earlier in the week), were not able to adjust quickly enough to beat Washington, but one night later they played a perfect game against the Rangers.
It was a big game for the Devils to win, and not only because it was against a cross-river rival. The win showed that New Jersey can play more than just the skill game—that the players as a team can adjust and be very competitive. And it can win playing in that checking style.
Of course, at this point in the season, the Rangers, who after last night are 1-5, are not the Caps. Nor are they the 4 and 1 Tampa Bay Lightning (who pull into the Prudential Center on Tuesday evening). So it is hard to tell whether the Devils can compete with this style of game against a team that is currently in top form. But, there is no doubt that New Jersey is a team on the rise—young and exciting to watch.
The Rangers, however, have thus far been much less exciting to watch than the Devils. There are several reasons for this, but before we go into them, do not forget the fact there is still talent in New York and this season is far from over. Many things can happen, and if you are smart, you never count the Blueshirts out.
But, in analyzing why the Rangers are 1-5, we have to go back a few years. At some point, New York made the decision to go for the Stanley Cup immediately and not worry as much about building a team for the future. It almost worked in 2012, but when winning the Cup did not come to pass, what the team was left with was a depleted prospect pool in an era where a steady flow of young players is critical to continual competitiveness. Although it appears that the Rangers are onboard wit what is needed now, the team is still suffering from those earlier decisions. New York attempted to overcome by signing forwards Kevin Hayes and Jimmy Vesey as free agents out of college, but it just has not been enough to overcome four years of no early-round draft selections. And even when they had a first or second round pick, it was so rare, it put too much pressure on the team to pick the right player. When a steady stream of young players is coming into the system, if you miss on one or two, it hurts, but it’s not the lifeblood of the franchise that is draining away. What lots of draft picks also does is give the franchise permission to let any poor choice or player that has not developed go earlier in the process, instead of wasting time and money (and a contract) on a prospect for far too long.
This year was the first in five that the Blueshirts have had first round picks–the Rangers have not seen one since 2012 (that pick was Brady Skjei). Both Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil have excellent upside, but neither looked NHL-ready in the pre-season. Andersson was returned to Europe for the 2017-18 season and, earlier this week, Chytil was sent to Hartford. A future first-line center, Chytil was dynamic in training camp and at times in the pre-season. But he needed some confidence and experience playing the North American pro game. He got it this weekend. Last night, he posted a goal and two assists in his second night with the AHL Wolf Pack. Although it is not clear whether he is ready to return to the New York Rangers roster, if he is, it could change everything in the coming weeks. The Rangers need a spark—just maybe Chytil is it.