The Rangers Don’t Need to Apologize for Their Strengths

The Rangers might have some issues at even strength, but they are elite in a couple of other critical areas, fueling their success.

The New York Rangers entered the All-Star/previously-scheduled Olympic break on a high note, as they defeated the high-flying Florida Panthers 5-2 on Tuesday, Feb. 1.

As they sit second in the competitive Metropolitan Division (by points percentage) with an excellent record of 30-13-4, remaining out of action until Feb. 15, there is still some confusion with respect to what to make of the Blueshirts.

Poor Even-Strength Play

Yes, their record is good. But rarely do the Rangers look holistically impressive as they skate their way to wins – the win versus Florida aside, as, following a poor opening frame, they strung together two of their best periods of the season against one of the league’s best teams.

The numbers bear out this notion of underwhelming play as well; while they are 17 games over the .500 mark, the Rangers’ overall goal differential is only plus-23, meaning they’ve squeaked out a number of close victories while sustaining some lopsided losses among their 13 in regulation. Indeed, 14 of their 30 wins have been by one goal, and they are 14-4-4 in one-goal games.

What’s more troubling is the Blueshirts’ propensity for being out-shot and out-chanced on a nearly regular basis. From mid-November through early December, it seemed that the Rangers had turned a corner with respect to this issue, as their 10-game rolling expected goal differential during five-on-five play had ascended into positive territory (per Evolving Hockey). The evidence at that point suggested that the Rangers were getting used to head coach Gerard Gallant’s system and finding their way. Since then, however, it has taken another nosedive below break-even.

And yet, the wins keep coming. The Rangers’ .681 points percentage ranks seventh in the entire league. Conversely, their five-on-five expected-goal share of 46.53 percent (per Evolving Hockey) ranks 26th. No team ahead of the Rangers in points percentage ranks lower than ninth in this metric. There is an obvious positive correlation between expected goal share and winning games, but the Rangers are a conspicuous outlier.

How the Rangers Win

While their underlying play at even strength isn’t a driver of their success like the other teams at or near the top of the standings, the Rangers’ formula for winning is pretty clear: otherworldly goaltending from Vezina Trophy frontrunner (but non-All-Star!) Igor Shesterkin, a lethal power play, and a strong penalty kill.

From the standpoint of pure conversion rate, the Rangers’ power play ranks fifth in the league, at 25.9 percent. The top unit of Mika Zibanejad, Artemiy Panarin, Chris Kreider, Ryan Strome, and Adam Fox has developed chemistry over a long period of time together, and they do the vast majority of the damage. Their scoring rate highlights their finishing ability, but they are also effective because they generate a plethora of chances with the man-advantage to begin with. Per Evolving Hockey, they generate 64.06 shots per 60 minutes – the fourth-highest rate in the league. Kreider, who is having the best season of his career and is leading the league in goals overall, has leveraged his net-front capabilities and prowess for deflecting shots to notch 17 power-play goals already. That number is four more than that of the player with the next-most in the NHL (the Edmonton Oilers’ Leon Draisaitl).

On the other side of special teams is New York’s penalty kill, which ranks 10th in the league at 82.6 percent. Here, the Rangers are more middle-of-the-pack in terms of shots surrendered per 60 minutes (14th in the league with a rate of 54.01 shots against per 60 minutes), but manage to keep the dangerous chances down as reflected by their expected goals-against rate of 6.78 per 60 shorthanded minutes (again per Evolving Hockey).

Helping their penalty kill, on top of their even-strength play, of course, is Shesterkin. While shorthanded, Shesterkin has saved 5.33 goals above expected (sixth-best in the league), per Evolving Hockey. At five-on-five, Shesterkin tops the league in this category, with a mark of 17.01 goals saved above expected. These numbers back up how incredible Shesterkin’s more traditional stats look (a .937 save percentage in all situations, along with a goals-against average of 2.10).

The Rangers’ reliance on an elite goalie, on the surface, looks to be a continuation of the Henrik Lundqvist era, where the King carried the Rangers to heights they otherwise would not have reached.

Nevertheless, it’s easy to forget, when watching a team that struggles to drive play at even strength, that goaltending and special teams matter! (And, contrary to an oft-heard narrative, the incidence of penalties does not necessarily decrease in the postseason.) These are not strengths that should be dismissed as somehow making the Rangers’ record hollow. They are key parts of the game, where the Rangers excel enough to overcome their shortcomings in other areas.

The Rangers don’t need to apologize for the obvious strengths they have; they’ve worked hard to build them, and that should not be overlooked. To be a true contender, though, they will just need to bolster the other areas of their game – namely, their ability to drive play at five-on-five more often.