Prior to the start of the season, many Ranger critics and fans felt that the Blueshirts penalty-kill, which was the best in the league for a while last year, would not be as successful with the dismissal of forwards Blair Betts and Fred Sjostrom. We are now four games past the midway point of the 2009-10 season, and once again the Rangers are among the top of the league while a man down, currently in third with a percentage of 86.3. In fact, the penalty-kill has been one of the only areas of the Rangers game that has been consistent through this roller coaster of a season thus far.
So it is not the coaching since both Renney and Tortorella had great pk units. It is not the forwards since the only three that are on the special teams both last year and this year are Drury, Callahan, and Dubinsky. So that obviously leaves defense and goaltending as your two remaining options. Do you really think Michal Rozsival has crucial to the kill? Henrik Lundqvist is the reason the penalty-kill is as successful as it is, and then you factor in players like Drury, Boyle, Prospal, and Gaborik. Like they say; goaltenders have to be your best penalty-killers.
Henrik is the type of netminder who loves to have the spotlight on him, and loves a great amount of pressure on him as well. While a man down, usually majority of the two minutes are spent in your own zone, so the goaltender is going to have to be good if shots are not being blocked or deflected by his mates in front of him. How often do you hear Lundqvist's name during a penalty-kill? Do me a favor and next time count the amount of times Hank is mentioned during the pk, because on average it is about four or five. Take Boston for example, as the Bruins were just firing at will from the point in Saturday's matinee on the powerplay, which saw Lundqvist all over the crease making saves. Basically, he stood on his head, and with a goaltender like that, you would expect to be one of the better clubs while shorthanded.
Of course, Lundqvist does not do it all himself, as there are some key forwards and defensemen who specialize in killing penalties. This starts with Captain Chris Drury. The Connecticut native may not be all that effective while on offense, but no one can complain about his defensive efforts in his own zone. Dru will sacrifice the body, he will make that extra effort to outskate a player to a loose pack, and he is also very effective while working along the boards. The same could be said of Ryan Callahan, who is just a joy to watch on the penalty-kill. Marian Gaborik also contributes, and I think his defensive efforts are somewhat underrated by fans here in New York.
On defense, there is no question that Marc Staal and Dan Girardi are the top stay-at-home blue-liners on this team, although Del Zotto is catching up. Both of these players are at their best when they use their body on opponents and play an all around physical game. They may be the only two players who do not shy away from attempting to clear Lundqvist's crease on this team.....most of the time anyway. Lately, Staal has been one of the better players for the Blueshirts, not only shorthanded, but at even strength as well.
Now-a-days, with the league being a low-scoring one overall, special teams is the difference between winning and losing more often than not. Along with the Rangers in the top five in the league on the penalty-kill are the Sabres, the Blackhawks, and the Bruins. All five of which are currently in a playoff position in their respective conference. This just goes to show you how far solid special teams units can take you, but unfortunately, the powerplay has not been so successful for the Rangers this year, but that discussion is for another day.
The special teams theory especially applies when playing against defensive clubs like the Bruins, or even the Rangers next opponent in the New Jersey Devils. Teams know heading into those games that they are likely going to be playing tight and that they will have to grind their way to a win. That starts with special teams, especially the penalty-kill where the effort needs to be 100 percent at all times. If the Rangers manage to make the playoffs come April, the penalty kill, without question, will be a major reason for that.