What Have We Learned? A Look at Games 16-18

Three games later and the New York Rangers collected three more wins… no seriously, they’re on a six-game winning streak.

The team that couldn’t piece together back-to-back wins – let alone collect more than a single win a week (if that) before last week – and was on the verge of losing a season due to such a damaging start is now one of the hottest teams in the league.

The Rangers opened a week of three straight home games against the Columbus Blue Jackets. After a scoreless first period, the Blue Jackets took a 2-0 lead in the second. Michael Grabner cut that lead in half with the Rangers’ only second period goal. In the third period, they pulled even when Shattenkirk scored a power play goal. Oliver Bjorkstrand scored to regain a Blue Jackets’ lead, but two more power play goals from the Rangers’ first unit helped them pull ahead. They maintained that lead and took the game 5-3.

On Wednesday, the Rangers matched up against the Boston Bruins. A Pavel Buchnevich goal gave the Rangers the first lead of the game. Soon after Boston tied it, Jimmy Vesey scored two quick goals to give his team a 3-1 lead. Patrice Bergeron scored to pull within one in the third period after a scoreless second frame. The Rangers were able to hold the lead and Rick Nash’s empty net goal in the final moments sealed it.

The third and final game of the week was on Saturday afternoon versus the Edmonton Oilers. This game saw the only lineup change for the week: Boo Nieves was healthy enough to return and replaced Paul Carey. The second line of Nash, Kevin Hayes, and Mats Zuccarello was matched up against Connor McDavid’s line for much of this game. In the first period – against that line – Nash scored the first goal of the game. Edmonton tied later that period, with a goal from Jesse Puljujarvi.

Tied 1-1 midway through the second, Steven Kampfer took an unnecessary hooking penalty. On that power play, McDavid scored (and shout out to @WeBleedBlue for catching that, um, nod to Sam Rosen in his goal celebration).

Karmic justice was served though, as Buchnevich and Nash both scored on the power play later that period. And with two seconds remaining, Grabner scored his fourth empty net goal of the season.

So here’s what we learned: It was Rick Nash night on Monday to celebrate him reaching the 1,000-game milestone. While he didn’t earn any points that night, he scored three goals in the following two games. Through the first 11 games of the season, he only scored one point, despite doing everything right on both sides of the ice in all situations. Now, he has eight points in his last seven games (totaling 9 points in 18 games).

Particularly after the Rangers’ dismal start, there were a lot of questions about how the team would proceed with their assets if they continued losing. Nash is one of the more obvious pieces to be moved since he’s in the final year of a contract (yes – the contract that is too expensive and too long – is ending). Even if he were to be moved at the deadline, there’s a chance he could return as a free agent this offseason. But, if the Rangers can sustain the success they’ve had and are in playoff contention at the deadline, then a different conversation will likely happen. Would it benefit the Rangers more to move him for assets, or is he the best playoff rental option on the market? If he continues to perform like this and the team is in the mix, it’s hard to see them moving Nash, but it’s something to keep an eye on as the season progresses.

Another forward who excelled again this week, is Buchnevich. Buchnevich is third on the team in points, with 15 in 18 games. Eight of those points have come on the power play. The other seven points have been scored at 5-on-5, all of which are primary; the rate at which he’s scoring leads the team (2.15 points per 60 minutes), as does his matching 2.15 primary points per 60. Additionally, his game score of 9.19 and 2.82 game score per 60 lead the team. He’s also collected a 52.67 Corsi for percentage – which is plus-5.86 relative to his teammates ­­– and a team-leading 60.54 expected goals for percentage (plus-14.3 relative).

Last week, the KZB line was reunited, returning Buchnevich to the first line after an indefensible stint on the fourth line. That combination was impactful at even-strength and on the power play last week. This week, they continued their exceptional play. Buchnevich specifically has earned five points, three of which were scored on the man-advantage, in the last three games. Scoring like that makes the decision to have him play on the fourth line at all this season look even more questionable than it did before. And even when Buchnevich isn’t scoring, he still is dangerous because of his unbelievable offensive instincts.

Somehow, his ice time still doesn’t accurately reflect his performance, especially on Wednesday and Saturday. At 5-on-5, he played 14 minutes versus Columbus, 12.2 versus Boston, and 12 versus Edmonton. How does a player like David Desharnais – who was slated to be a healthy scratch before Nieves was out with flu, who was barely utilized in the third period of last week’s games, who only had two shifts after being on the ice for both Columbus goals against in the second period and didn’t see any ice in the third period – have more ice time than not just Buchnevich, but Kreider too? Decisions like that still don’t make any sense.

Shifting to defense, there’s still good and bad. Starting with the good, there’s Kevin Shattenkirk. Right now, he has 17 points in 18 games, which ranks third in the league behind only John Klingberg (18 points in 16 games) and Erik Karlsson (17 points in 11 games). On the Rangers, he’s second in scoring, first in assists (12), and second in power play points (9). He’s on a seven-game scoring streak where he’s accumulated 10 points. Not only is he providing an offensive boost from the blue line, but his influence on the power play (which is third in the league at 25.8 percent) has been outstanding. This week, he had four points in three games.

Nick Holden has made an impression this week as well. Here’s the thing with Holden: based on the seven defensemen available at the NHL level, he should be in the lineup. His performance so far this season – one that has earned him a 47.03 Corsi for percentage and 58.57 expected goals for percentage at 5-on-5 through 13 games – has had some positive aspects to it. Having said that, he still doesn’t belong on the first-pair with Ryan McDonagh. McDonagh hasn’t been playing at the level that’s expected from him this season. Having a more capable partner, such as Brady Skjei or Shattenkirk, could boost his play; Holden probably isn’t going to do that. And when McDonagh isn’t at the top of the game, he isn’t going to make up for Holden’s mistakes (see Bergeron’s goal against).

It’s fair to say that Holden deserves a place in the lineup right now, but it’s also fair to say that he shouldn’t be deployed in the position he has been. There’s a difference between being a first-pair defenseman and a healthy scratch (yes, we’ll get to you Brendan Smith). Holden’s play hasn’t been strong enough to warrant relying on him in the most crucial moments of the game against the most challenging competition. While DeAngelo is playing with Hartford, Holden should be the sixth defenseman on this team – the keyword being sixth, not second.

Well, if Holden moves down the depth chart to the sixth spot, what happens with Steven Kampfer? I’m glad you asked.

Kampfer moves out of the lineup. For whatever reason, Kampfer has been trusted with some shifts against the opponent’s top players – at home, when the Rangers have the advantage of last change. Still, he’s seen ice sporadically against the top competition, like Artemi Panarin on Monday. After he was on the ice when Panarin scored, did he miss a shift? And when he took an unnecessary hooking penalty against the Oilers that resulted in a power play goal against, did he miss a shift? Other defensemen on this team have been held accountable for less, so it just doesn’t make sense why Kampfer isn’t. And no, the answer isn’t this team doesn’t change the lineup after a win, because that really isn’t the case, not during this win streak, and not during Alain Vigneault’s tenure.

Brendan Smith should be in the lineup over Kampfer. The Rangers invested far too much in him for him to be a healthy scratch for five games in a row – even if the rumors about him being out of shape are true. And if he was out of shape and the team knew this, then why was his given first-pair minutes at all? If anything, wouldn’t it have been wiser to ease him back into the season in a sheltered role until he was ready to take on those challenging minutes? Isn’t that better for the sake of the team?

Not only did he fail to meet expectations to start the season, but he’s going to be rusty whenever he re-enters after sitting for this long. Smith shouldn’t have to wait until this win streak ends to return to the lineup, just as Holden didn’t have to wait until their win streak ended to enter it.

These last three wins have helped the Rangers get back on track this season, but there’s still room for improvement in their game. Their 5-on-5 production has to improve. Three power play goals helped them defeat the Blue Jackets, two assisted in the win over the Oilers. Having an effective power play is important, but their 5-on-5 play is even more critical. As much as they can rely on the man-advantage, they still have to consistently produce at even-strength.

The Rangers have taken strides over the last two weeks, becoming one of the hottest teams in the league. The ultimate goal is finding the win column, and they’ve done just that. This team has shown how dynamic they can be in all situations. However, the struggles that they’ve had can still re-emerge. While a dangerous power play and Henrik Lundqvist’s trademark play can help mask that, sustainable success at the highest level requires more. If the Rangers are going to go further than they have in recent seasons, they must address their shortcomings while celebrating their wins.

*Data is at 5v5, via Corsica.hockey