It has been a week of celebrations at Madison Square Garden.. Earlier in the week, it was a celebration of veterans, where the Rangers thanked servicemen and woman for their sacrifices and contributions to this country. Last night, it was a tribute to Larry Brooks, the dean of the Rangers’ press corps who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame this week. The Rangers surprised Brooks with a plaque before the game against the Florida Panthers, and then gave him a Garden Vision video tribute during the contest.
In the game on the ice, the Rangers defeated the Panthers by a score of 4-2, which created another cause for celebration. Netminder Henrik Lundqvist won his 437th game, surpassing Jacque Plante on the NHL all-time wins list. Lundqvist now has sole possession of seventh place in that category. His performance last night was stellar—on 41 shots, he only gave up two goals—a not unusual occurrence this season.
Over the last 10 games, New York is 7-2-1—earning at least one point in eight of the last nine games, 11 of the last 15, and 12 of the last 17 games. And the team has only played 20 regular season games in 2018-19. That is impressive for a group that was expected to be way out of the playoff running by the middle of November. Instead, the Rangers sit third in the Metropolitan Division and, if they keep playing like this, will be playing in April rather than waiting for the entry draft lottery.
All this is not to say that there are no issues with the Rangers’ play, but Lundqvist has kept the team in every game he has played in. He has been solid in net and, although the team gave up seven goals to the Islanders on Thursday, as Head Coach David Quinn said last night, Lundqvist was not pulled from the game in Brooklyn because he was playing badly. Quinn wanted to rest Henrik and thought the goalie change may change the way the team was playing (it almost did).
It is not just Lundqvist that is playing well. Also going right are several of the Rangers’ forwards. The team’s leading scorer after last night is Chris Kreider, who may have finally reached his potential. The 2009 first round selection has always had speed and an incredible release, but he frustrated fans by his failure to play the north-south game. Now, with 11 goals and seven assists this season, Kreider appears to have broken through as the power forward he has had all the tools to be.
And Filip Chytil, who got his first goal of the season this past week, now has three goals in as many games. But it is not only Chytil’s goals that are getting attention—it is the fact that he is using his speed, talent, and tenacity to make a difference every time he is on the ice. He is exciting and highly motivated—let’s just hope he is careful too when he is crashing into everything in sight.
Ryan Strome, picked up from Edmonton over the last few days in exchange for Ryan Spooner, had four hits last night, does not back off, and won more face offs than he lost. Strome also has some offensive talent, which will make him a valuable pick up. His play last night probably sealed Vinni Lettieri’s fate this morning (Lettieri was reassigned to Hartford). Several of the forwards in Hartford (e.g., Nieves, Fogarty) deserve a chance in New York. It also could leave room for Toronto’s unsigned offensive whiz William Nylander, if he was traded to the Blueshirts in the coming days.
It would take a lot to pry Nylander from Toronto, but one of the pieces that might be sent to a Leaf team that needs defense is Brady Skjei. Skjei was a healthy scratch last night (after a terrible game “on the Island” on Thursday) and has not developed into the player that the team had hoped after a stellar first NHL season in 2016-17. That would leave the Rangers with a big hole on D, but long term, it would be a good deal.
Right now, the Rangers best defensemen are Neal Pionk and Marc Staal, who played together on the first pair last evening. Both played very well against Florida last night, but the two should not be the top pairing D-men for the team over the course of the season. Although Quinn said in his post-game presser that he has a lot of choices on the blueline, he has to know that the best choices are probably not NHL-ready at this point.
One of the other areas in which the Rangers must improve is on face offs. Last night the win percentage was 35. It would be one thing if this was a one off—but it wasn’t. This week alone, the face off win percentages were 38% in Columbus, 48% against the Islanders, and 45% in Detroit. The only time the Rangers won more face offs than they lost was against Vancouver on Tuesday, when the Blueshirts won 30 of 53. This just cannot continue—fixing the problem will be critical to continued success.
Mika Zibanejad had a particularly horrific night in the face-off circle. He has been a tremendous performer for the Blueshirts this season—he is a large part of the team’s success thus far–but despite his assist last night, he knows he cannot be the number one center and be 12% in the face off win category.
The coming days should be interesting—not just on the ice, where the Rangers are surprising us and opponents with their winning ways. But also, expect more player movement. And not just at the trade deadline.