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What Have We Learned? A Look at Games 13-15

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New York Rangers v Florida Panthers Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

For the first time this season, the New York Rangers won all three of their games this week. It’s still surprising it took them this long to accomplish that, considering how strong the team looked going into the 2017-18 season. Throughout October, the Rangers would only escape each week with a single win – if that. They had yet to win on the road until Thursday in Tampa Bay. So this week wasn’t just a step forward from last week, but from their entire season up to this point.

The Rangers kicked off the week against the Vegas Golden Knights. In theory, a game against an expansion team in their inaugural season shouldn’t be particularly difficult. The Golden Knights, however, have been winning this season – even if they aren’t exactly dominating their games.

On Tuesday at Madison Square Garden, Maxime Lagace, the Golden Knights’ fourth-string goaltender, made his first NHL start. That, paired with this team’s lackluster underlying numbers, should have made this an easier matchup for the Rangers; instead, it was a high-pressure game that may have had some long-term implications riding on it.

The Rangers managed to collect two points with a 6-4 win, but their play wasn’t without its fault. This was a game in which the Rangers finally deployed the best forward line combinations. The KZB line of Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad, and Pavel Buchnevich was reunited, Rick NashKevin HayesMats Zuccarello followed as the second line, and the bottom two lines consisted of J.T. MillerDavid DesharnaisJimmy Vesey and Michael GrabnerBoo Nieves – Jesper Fast. Unfortunately, not all of the other lineup choices were as wise.

Steven Kampfer drew back into the lineup over Nick Holden, which made sense as Holden’s performance last week didn’t inspire much confidence. That said, Kampfer isn’t exactly an NHL-caliber defenseman that belongs in this lineup; the Rangers would have been better suited with Tony DeAngelo instead. Additionally, Brendan Smith, who clearly struggled and accumulated the second-worst Corsi differential of all skaters in this game, was barely utilized in the third period.

Benching a struggling Smith in a crucial third-period wasn’t the worst idea, as his play wasn’t up to par. However, Kampfer was still being used after he misplayed a 1-on-1 against Alex Tuch that led to the Golden Knights’ first goal, and he should have been held accountable as well. At this point in the season and overall at this point in Alain Vigneault’s tenure, these choices aren’t particularly surprising.

The Rangers were down 4-2 heading into the third period, but four unanswered goals powered them over the Golden Knights. With strong play from Henrik Lundqvist and production from their top forwards – two points from Buchnevich and Zuccarello, three from Zibanejad – the Rangers were able to score four consecutive goals to regain and maintain the lead.

For the most part, this wasn’t a strong game for the Rangers. Earning two points was critical, but playing poorly to earn them can still be problematic. As important as the end result is, a team has to learn from a game – win or loss – and address their weaknesses in order to build off of that performance and find sustainable success, which is something the Rangers haven’t had yet. While this game was a step in the right direction, the key is learning from a performance that didn’t exactly merit a win.

Next, the Rangers traveled to Florida for games against the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers. Prior to Thursday’s game, the Rangers had yet to win a game on the road, so that was another hurdle to climb.

The only lineup change for this game was on the blue line. Smith was a healthy scratch and Holden returned to the lineup on the first pair with Ryan McDonagh. However, before the game it was noted that the defense pairs would change throughout the game for matchup purposes. When facing a team with such dynamic offense, the defensive matchups are key. But those matchups sometimes resulted in Kampfer and Holden being out against the first line of Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Vladislav Namestnikov, and the pair of Staal and Holden questionably made some appearances as well.

Lundqvist and Andrei Vasilevskiy’s game-changing performances held their teams in this one, and kept this a 1-1 game in the third period to force overtime. Miller scored the game-winner in overtime, assisted by Shattenkirk, to give the Rangers their first road win of the season.

The Rangers continued their road trip in Florida on Saturday with a matchup against the Panthers in Sunrise. Desharnais, who was scarcely used in the third period on Thursday, was initially going to be the only change, with Paul Carey replacing him; however Nieves had the flu, so Desharnais maintained his place and Carey assumed Nieves’s.

Shattenkirk’s goal in the second period, assisted by Miller, tied the game 2-2. Fast’s efforts helped Grabner give the Rangers their first lead of the game in the third period, which was soon neutralized by Keith Yandle’s game-tying goal. The Rangers regained the lead as Nash scored his third goal of the season, and McDonagh and Miller earned their second assists of the night. With two minutes remaining, the Panthers pulled their goaltender and Vincent Trocheck quickly scored a 6v5 goal to force overtime. Again in overtime, the efforts of Shattenkirk and Miller paid off – Shattenkirk scored the game-winner, assisted by Nash and Miller.

So here’s what we learned: Shattenkirk is really good. He added four points this week, totaling 13 in 15 games as a Blueshirt this season. He also contributed to all three game-winning goals this week – Zibanejad’s on Tuesday, Miller’s on Thursday, and his own goal on Saturday. Additionally his puck-moving abilities have elevated the power play, which he’s collected six of his 13 points on.

Shattenkirk was moved off of the third pair and spent much of this week alongside Brady Skjei. This season at 5-on-5, this pair has played 101.3 minutes, which is more than any other defensive pair so far. Overall, they played well this week and managed some challenging matchups – which is why they played more all-situation ice time than any other skaters.

Seeing how this pair performs was important, but when it became clear that Shattenkirk was thriving and Smith was struggling on the first pair with McDonagh, why weren’t they switched? McDonagh hasn’t had the strongest start to the season – which was definitely unanticipated – although he has taken a few maintenance days, so could be he’s dealing with an undisclosed injury. Whatever the case is, elevating Skjei and Shattenkirk’s ice time is beneficial to McDonagh – however, it still doesn’t change the fact that his play hasn’t met expectations.

The answer, according to the Rangers’ coaches, was playing him with Holden – it was clear very quickly that wasn’t the solution. Holden was supposed to be the Rangers’ seventh defenseman this season, not second, and his play hasn’t warranted the promotion.

It’s not to say that Smith deserved to play there either – his play hasn’t been strong enough for the first pair, but there’s a difference between the first pair and being a healthy scratch. Smith first should have been moved down the lineup into a more sheltered role before making him a healthy scratch, especially when the replacement options are Holden and Kampfer, who have struggled just as much, if not more, and haven’t been held to the same standard.

Moving Smith down the lineup opens a place on the first pair for either Skjei, who could experiment playing on his offside, or Shattenkirk. McDonagh has only played 38.18 5-on-5 minutes with Shattenkirk, which is still mind-blowing. It’s not as if the pair wasn’t able to drive play, as they accumulated a 60 Corsi for percentage and 55.98 expected goals for percentage when deployed together. It’s a small sample, but it’s one that should encourage the Rangers to explore it further, instead of dismantling it.

If Skjei were to shift to the right side, it would open up a slot on the left for Smith. Smith is left-handed and has mainly been used on his off side this season. Allowing him to play on the left, alongside Shattenkirk or even Skjei, could give him the opportunity to get back into the rhythm of playing, which is far more productive than benching him – especially considering how much was invested in him.

On offense, Nash’s play has been commendable throughout the season. His speed, strength, and playmaking abilities are clear every time he’s on the ice, as are his his defensive efforts.

Nash doubled his scoring this week with three points, all of which were in key situations: the primary assist on Zuccarello’s game tying goal Tuesday, a third period game-tying goal on Saturday, and the primary assist on Shattenkirk’s Saturday game-winner. His efforts often go unnoticed, especially if there are no tangible results, but this week those results were clear on the scoresheet.

It’s still early in the season, but Zibanejad’s efforts in the role of first-line center have been exceptional. He leads the team with 14 points (eight goals, six assists) and has accumulated the most power play points as well (seven). At 5-on-5, he has the second highest Corsi for percentage on the team (55.26), and a positive expected goals for percentage (54).

Zibanejad has been relied on in all situations and has often been double-shifted when the bench is shortened. Plus, he’s been tasked with handling more challenging minutes. His transition to this role has been encouraging; the more he grows, the more integral he becomes to this team.

Miller has been shifted around this lineup quite a bit already this season, but he’s quietly tied Zibanejad’s 14 points (three goals, 11 assists). This week his play was pivotal, as he scored the game-winning overtime goal Thursday and earned three assists on Saturday.

There were a lot of expectations for Miller this season, and it was anticipated that he’d start the season as a center. Instead, he maintained his place on the wing. Maybe because he didn’t change his role, the expectations for him were heightened. To start the season, his play just didn’t stand out enough. That changed this week, and it’s vital that it continues.

The Rangers finally found a way to piece together wins, and ended the week with six much-needed points. Yet there are still so many questions that have to be answered. This team has managed to win games with disappointing play, which has to improve.

Things like this week’s inexcusable lineup changes need to be addressed – such as why changes were made at all, when changes usually “don’t come after wins.”

When the Rangers’ play necessitates changes, they should come. However, the changes that were made didn’t give the team the best chance of success. A struggling Smith is still better than the damaging play of Kampfer and Holden. Desharnais potentially being scratched for Carey didn’t make sense either, because Carey had been scratched to play 11 forwards instead this season. He wasn’t even dressed when the coaches acknowledged the need for four centers, not even as a placeholder, before a fourth center was recalled. Accountability is one thing, but decisions like these are just puzzling for a team that is desperate for wins.

Far too often, the Rangers are relying on Lundqvist to backstop them to success. While he’s allowed some goals that he should have stopped, he’s been excellent when they have needed him to be. The only problem is they need him to be excellent far too often.

Throughout his career, he’s masked this team’s shortcomings; already this season is no different, and that has to change. With each game, it’s clearer than ever: the issues are on defense. The personnel and deployment problems from last year have continued, but more than anything, it’s the defensive system and strategies that are holding this team back.

Until that’s remedied, sustainable success is going to be hard to come by. For now, it looks like the Rangers just haven’t learned enough yet.

*5v5 data courtesy of Corsica.hockey