At 40 games into the 2020-21 season, the Rangers are in sixth place in the East Division. They are five points out of a playoff spot, with 16 contests left to play. Not only are the Flyers in between the Blueshirts and the playoffs (they are one point ahead of NYR), but the Bruins (who are currently holding the last playoff spot) have two games in hand on New York.
The Rangers generally have looked more cohesive as the season has gone along. And the team’s last game, against the Islanders on Friday evening, was arguably the Blueshirt’s best game–on both sides of the puck,. But there remain issues to be resolved, which was very obvious last week when Pittsburgh clogged up the neutral zone and stopped the Rangers’ mighty offensive machine. The Rangers’ strengths are their top three forward lines and the ability of the defense to jump into the play. New York’s weaknesses are the work of the defense in their own zone, the team’s inability to adjust when a team clogs the neutral zone, their lack of physical presence, and the lack of the goaltender(s) stealing games when needed.
As Head Coach David Quinn has often said, its a balancing act with this team. Although he usually means it as a balancing act between winning and developing young players (i.e., giving them ice time, sticking with them when they make mistakes), the balancing act also refers to how the defense plays. As Quinn stated even before the season began, he wants the defense to play fourth man up. The problem with this has been that it provides inconsistent results.
There is no question that a defense that is quick to jump into the play provides goals for. And over the last two seasons the Rangers are no longer suffering from their perennial lack of scoring–over the course of their 40 games this season, they have scored 3.275 goals per game (compared to 2.769 in 2018-19, and 2.659 in 2013-14, which was the team’s last trip to the Stanley Cup finals).
The problem becomes what happens in a team’s own zone when the second defensemen is caught up ice. Although the goals against this year is comparatively good–the number is 2.725 per game, and as of this morning, the Rangers were +22 in the goal for and against differential, as Quinn said just this morning, “there is a difference between having a big goal differential and winning games.”
The goal differential is partly deceiving because the Rangers have had quite a few blowout games that raises the goals for, but it is also partly because opponents are scoring on the Blueshirts late in games, which causes the Rangers to lose close ones. In total, thus far this season, the Blueshirts have lost 13 one-goal games (including 3 shootouts). Removing those shootouts, which have nothing to do with defense (either by blueliners or the goalies), 10 games have been lost in the latter part of the third period or in OT.
If the Rangers want to compete in the post-season or win once they get there, the late game goals against and OT losses must stop. Igor Shesterkin will need to steal a few games for them (as he did last season). In all fairness, however, this is not only on the defense and goaltending, as giveaways by the forwards are also a problem. Now that primary and secondary scoring are less of an issue, the Rangers must change focus and tighten up those sides of their game.
And just in case you may think I forgot the final piece to the puzzle–the physical toughness that is required to be a Stanley Cup contender–the players that will make that happen are mostly not in New York yet. But, do not fret, they are coming–the Rangers drafted for it in 2020, and it is expected that the team will get more talented sandpaper players in the draft this summer.
All in all, it remains to be seen if enough can be done to put together over the next 16 games to make the playoffs, but there is no doubt that the team is definitely moving in the right direction. What is important to remember is that the current roster is not the final product. More is coming, but until then, this sure is fun to watch.