What Have We Learned? A Look at Games 19-21

The New York Rangers entered the week on a six-game winning streak that turned their season around. After finishing the week last Saturday at home against the Edmonton Oilers, the Blackhawks ended their streak on Wednesday. The Rangers added another loss to their record on Friday in Columbus, but when they returned home on Sunday to face the Ottawa Senators, they also returned to the win column.

The Rangers didn’t change their lineup after last Saturday’s win, deploying the same lineup against the Blackhawks as they did the Oilers. While both teams generated some quality chances, it was only a 1-1 game after 40 minutes thanks to stellar goaltending on both sides of the ice. But in the third the Blackhawks took control and scored three goals, with the Rangers’ defensive breakdowns proving costly. Henrik Lundqvist was pulled, and the Rangers had to try to dig themselves out of a 4-1 hole. Kevin Hayes and Rick Nash each added a goal to put their team within one, but Artem Anisimov’s third goal of the night and Jonathan Toews’s goal in the final moments kept this game out of reach.

Friday, the Rangers traveled to Columbus to face the Blue Jackets for the third time this season. Brendan Smith returned to the lineup for the first time since October 31, replacing Steven Kampfer. The forward lines were kept intact until the third period, when the Rangers were trailing 1-0. Nash moved up to the first line with Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad, Jimmy Vesey joined Hayes and Mats Zuccarello on the second line, Pavel Buchnevich moved down to the third line, and the fourth line remained the same. Despite these changes, the Rangers weren’t able to get one past Sergei Bobrovsky, whose exceptional play earned him a shutout.

On Sunday, the Senators visited Madison Square Garden for their first matchup since the Rangers’ disheartening Game 6 playoff elimination. The defensive pairs remained from Friday’s game, but the forward lines saw some changes. Below the still-intact first line of KZB, Jesper Fast moved up to the second line with Nash and Hayes. Michael Grabner moved up to the third line, joined by Zuccarello and J.T. Miller, who shifted to center as David Desharnais was a healthy scratch. Boo Nieves was the only mainstay on the fourth line, and he was joined by Vesey and Paul Carey.

After a scoreless first, Kevin Hayes opened the scoring in the second period. Grabner deflected Marc Staal’s shot in the second to give the Rangers a 2-0 lead, and Zibanejad scored an empty-net goal. The Rangers collected two points with that 3-0 win and Lundqvist earned his 63rd career shutout.

So here’s what we learned: Starting on offense, we were reminded just how good Hayes can be. Hayes’s hands have always been his strongest asset, and that was on display this week on both sides of the ice. He scored two even-strength goals this week – one of which ended up being the game-winner on Sunday – which was key, as the Rangers’ 5-on-5 production hasn’t been as strong as they need it to be.

Hayes has managed to generate offense for the Rangers despite seeing so few starts in the offensive zone – he has the second lowest percentage of offensive zone starts (28.26) of this forward group. Last season Hayes was also tasked with a high number of defensive zone starts, and while he looked good on the surface, his underlying numbers were concerning; much of that, though, could be due to the questionable tactics he was asked to employ. This clearly wasn’t the best role for Hayes, as he didn’t get enough of an opportunity to show his offensive abilities.

This season, Hayes has earned an expanded role as the team’s second-line center (well, he got it because the Rangers’ center depth was decimated, but it’s not to say that he didn’t deserve it). Nonetheless, he is still tasked with a lot of defensive responsibilities – and it’s paying off, not only at 5-on-5, but on the penalty kill as well. If Hayes can continue his excellent play on both sides of the ice, then Alain Vigneault certainly does deserve credit for that. One caveat to that (isn’t there always?) is that they are missing an opportunity to make Hayes an even stronger all-around player by giving him power play time. Players like Desharnais and Vesey have had opportunities on the second power play unit, while Hayes really hasn’t had any; this is something that should change.

Speaking of Desharnais, scratching him on Sunday made sense. Vigneault often shortens his bench when the Rangers are trailing. One player that knows all about that this season is Desharnais, as he’s been benched for a few third periods already this season. And had Nieves not had the flu, Desharnais was likely going to come out during the win streak. On Wednesday, his Corsi differential was a minus-3; on Friday, it was a minus-11. Additionally, he was on the ice for a goal against each night.

It’s not as though his defensive play hasn’t been an issue all season. With Desharnais on the ice, the Rangers face a high number of shot attempts against (61.32 per hour). His expected goals against of 3.29 per hour is also one of the highest not just on offense, but on the team overall. For some context, he starts in the offensive zone 35.51 percent of the time and the defensive zone only 28.97 of the time. Given this, scratching him makes sense. But if this is going to be a long-term thing, then the Rangers have to reconsider their center options – can Miller fulfill this role? Is there anyone in Hartford that can play down the middle in the bottom-six? Are there any low-risk trade options?

Another player who received a demotion on Sunday, although he remained in the lineup, was Vesey. He’s spent much of this season in the middle-six, but was bumped to the fourth line against the Senators. On Wednesday, he led the forwards in ice time; Friday in Columbus, he finished fifth on offense (ahead of Hayes, Miller, and Buchnevich), as he was promoted to the second line when the team craved offense. But on Sunday, he was bumped to the fourth line and didn’t play too much more at even-strength than his linemates Nieves and Carey.

Giving a player that much ice time (which was questionable in the first place) before moving him to the fourth line seems like a drastic change. Something similar occurred on the blue line as well this week, which brings us to Kampfer. Kampfer played 14:34 minutes in his only game of the week, which was the lowest of the defense. But in those minutes, he was tasked with some of the most challenging matchups against the Blackhawks’ best players.

While it was the Blackhawks who had last change, the Rangers have deployed similar matchups in other games when they had home ice, so there’s a chance this was still somewhat intentional. And in those matchups, Kampfer and Staal were completely outplayed. Then, in the final moments of a one-goal game when the Rangers pulled their goaltender in an attempt to force overtime, Kampfer was deployed. It’s not as though he’s an offensive defenseman that could better their chances of scoring, and he’s not even particularly effective defensively, so why use him in the most crucial moments of the game?

After receiving those expanded responsibilities in his limited ice time, he became a healthy scratch, which doesn’t really add up. Throughout the win streak it was evident that the Rangers weren’t deploying their best defense. It was also evident that changes weren’t going to come until they lost. Well, they lost, and Kampfer and Smith subsequently switched places in the press box. Even though the right decision to switch defensemen was ultimately made, there are still some questions about the thought process that just haven’t been answered. In order to better understand this team and their mechanisms, these are things that should be questioned and analyzed. Since they’re not, and all we’re left with are quotes about a player’s compete, there isn’t much to learn about the decision-making process; but at least the right decision was finally made to get Smith back into the lineup.

Behind the offense and defense, there’s the goaltender. A lot has been made about Lundqvist’s his age and supposed inability to carry this team. Despite his age, he’s still very capable of being the backbone of this team – however, there’s no question that he needs the support of his defense. Unfortunately, he hasn’t had that a lot this season and he undeservingly takes a lot of the blame.

This week though, it was hard to put blame on him for the Rangers’ two losses. Lundqvist was outstanding through 40 minutes against the Blackhawks. He should have stopped that first goal against at the end of the second, but he didn’t. He shouldn’t be faulted for the rest of the third period goals against though; the defensive breakdowns of literally every member of the blue line were what lost them the game. Kampfer accumulated a Corsi for percentage of 28.57, Staal 30.56 percent, and McDonagh 44.74 percent. As for expected goals, McDonagh finished the night with a percentage of 28.65, Kampfer 33.01, Staal 34.21, and Shattenkirk 43.32. So as much as Lundqvist should have had that first goal, his defense didn’t support him nearly enough in the third period to keep the game tied 1-1.

Friday, Lundqvist stopped 40 of 42 shots against. At 5-on-5, his expected goals against was 4.26, but only one shot got past him. Plus, he stopped all 12 high-danger shots against he faced. Lundqvist earned a 3.26 goals saved above average, but the Rangers not being able to get the puck past Bobrovsky was what lost them the game.

Sunday’s game was emotional for Lundqvist, as it was a rematch against the team that took away his hope at hoisting the Stanley Cup last year. The mental aspect of goaltending is pivotal, and it was to the Rangers’ advantage as Lundqvist was able to shutout the team that eliminated him last season. It wasn’t necessarily as challenging a game, as he only faced 20 all-situation shots, 16 of which came at 5-on-5, but it was still an accomplishment for him and his team.

The Rangers 5-on-5 play hasn’t been their greatest strength so far this season. Unlike prior seasons, their power play has actually given them an advantage and been a reliable source of offense. Through 21 games, the Rangers’ Corsi for is only 48.08 percent, which is the eighth lowest in the league. They’re only generating shot attempts for at a below average rate of 54.69 per hour. That becomes particularly problematic when they aren’t scoring on the power play, something they didn’t do once this week; as a result, their power play efficiency dropped from 25.8 to 22.7 percent.

Their 5-on-5 defense needs work as well; the Rangers allow the sixth most shot attempts per hour (59.06) and have the worst expected goals against in the league (2.89). Sunday was one of the best defensive efforts from the Rangers this season, not just at 5-on-5, but on the penalty kill as well. The Rangers successfully killed off two minors and a major penalty, limiting the Senators to just three power play shots all together. As the season progressed, the penalty kill has improved, and the efforts of players like Nash, Zuccarello, and Hayes have certainly stood out, especially on Sunday.

Although the Rangers were successful defensively on Sunday, there’s room for improvement. It remains to be seen whether Holden should be on the first pair. When playing with McDonagh his Corsi for is at 55.88 percent; without McDonagh it drops to 38.61 percent. McDonagh hasn’t played his best hockey this season and may not be able to compensate for Holden’s mistakes, so instead maybe the focus should be on finding a partner to help the team’s best defenseman reach his full potential.

Still, at least the right defensemen are in the lineup with Smith’s return, so they are a step closer to optimizing their blue line. If Sunday was any indication of how this team can perform with this group of defenseman, it’s definitely encouraging.

The Rangers win streak came to an end this week, which was bound to happen sooner or later, and after a two-game skid, they returned to the win column. There were a number of takeaways from this week, but there are still looming questions that have to be answered. Thanksgiving typically falls around the quarter-mark of the season, giving general managers a chance to re-assess their teams. More than anything, it’s imperative that the front office has learned something from these first 21-games and came away with insights into how to move further this season.

*Data is at 5v5, via Corsica.hockey and NaturalStatTrick.