What Have We Learned: A Look at Games 25 and 26

It was a lighter week for the New York Rangers, as they only had two games since last Sunday’s shootout win over the Vancouver Canucks. Both games were at home against opponents they’ve not only faced off against, but collected two points against this season.

On Tuesday, the Rangers looked to extend their four-game win streak and eight-game home win streak against the Florida Panthers. After warmups, it was announced that Mika Zibanejad was injured and wouldn’t play, and that David Desharnais would take his place on the first line. Henrik Lundqvist was questionably tapped for his 13th consecutive start, despite the fact that it was a prime opportunity to give backup Ondrej Pavelec his fourth start of the season. Well, 16:47 minutes and three first period goals later from Aleksander Barkov, Jamie McGinn, and Michael Haley, Lundqvist was on the bench and Pavelec was between the pipes.

Four minutes into the second period, J.T. Miller opened the scoring for the Rangers with a goal from Mats Zuccarello and Brady Skjei. Jonathan Huberdeau re-instated the Panthers’ three goal lead moments later. Pavel Buchnevich cut the score in half, assisted by Chris Kreider and Desharnais soon after. That line combined for another goal later that period, this time scored by Kreider from Buchnevich and Desharnais.

In the third period, Kevin Hayes scored what could have been the game-tying goal, but it was disallowed due to goaltender interference, even after a coach’s challenge. But then Kreider found the back of the net for his second of the night to tie the game 4-4. Then, when it looked like the Rangers had forced overtime with Kreider’s game-tying goal, with just over a minute remaining, defensive breakdowns led to Denis Malgin scoring the game-winning goal.

After Tuesday’s disheartening loss, the Rangers had the chance to rebound on Thursday against the Carolina Hurricanes. Lundqvist was again in net, Zibanejad remained out, Ryan McDonagh returned to the lineup, and Steven Kampfer became a healthy scratch.

Fifty-six seconds into the game, Justin Williams scored to give the Hurricanes a 1-0 lead. Things could have gone south for the Rangers after that, but Lundqvist was perfect the rest of the game, stopping all 32 shots he faced. The Rangers balanced things out 37 seconds into the second period with a power play goal from Desharnais after Hurricanes’ netminder Scott Darling mishandled the puck. Grabner added another just over a minute later to give the Rangers a 2-1 lead.

While this was technically a 5-1 win, and the score probably made it look like an easy victory for the Rangers, it really wasn’t. The Hurricanes pulled their goaltender in the final moments, and Grabner scored two empty-net goals for a hat trick. The Hurricanes challenged one of those empty-net goals but were unsuccessful and penalized for it. On that subsequent Rangers power play, they added their fifth goal of the night – from Paul Carey, no less.

So what have we learned? Lundqvist is playing a lot, arguably too much. Starting a goaltender this much – especially when he’s 35-years-old and anticipated to play well into the spring, is risky. And Pavelec hasn’t started enough to prove whether or not he can be a serviceable backup. If matchups against the Panthers and Hurricanes aren’t good opportunities for Pavelec to prove that, then what are? Why sign him this offseason when there were other, maybe less risky, options on the market?

Ryan Miller, Darcy Kuemper, Keith Kinkaid, and Jonathan Bernier were all available backup goaltenders on the market this offseason, and it’s not to say that any of them would necessarily be better than Pavelec in New York, but the Rangers specifically chose Pavelec and chose to sign him for $1.3 million, which is more than a handful of backups around the league make. Maybe he isn’t trusted quite yet, and that’s understandable because he hasn’t had much of a chance to earn it, but how does he earn it if he isn’t playing?

Shifting to defense, with McDonagh healthy enough to return against Carolina, Kampfer was the odd man out. Will that last? Eh, maybe – that really remains to be seen. And is McDonagh 100 percent healthy? Eh, that also isn’t clear (and if he isn’t, he should probably be held out a bit longer so they don’t risk re-aggravating the injury). In that game, the defensive pairs of McDonagh-Holden, Skjei-Shattenkirk, and Staal-Smith, which were in place prior to McDonagh’s absence, were deployed.

It was questioned earlier this season if Staal has improved this season because he’s been paired with a more defensively-minded player in Kampfer. In recent seasons he’s skated alongside players like Nick Holden and Dan Boyle, and Staal wasn’t at his best. It’s possible that a more defensive presence helps stabilize his game. For that reason, Smith makes sense as his partner as he’s an effective shot suppressor, and that can emulate a more defensive style. Does Smith deserve third-pair minutes though? Well, not exactly. But what other options are there? Neither Skjei or Shattenkirk deserve the demotion and it’s not clear if either would optimize that pair. And reuniting Staal and Holden definitely isn’t ideal either, although maybe they’d be fine in sheltered third-pair minutes.

But a second-pair of Skjei-Shattenkirk and third-pair of Staal-Smith leaves the Rangers with a first-pair of McDonagh-Holden which really isn’t ideal. It’s been said before and apparently still needs to be said: Holden has been playing well this season, but that level of play still doesn’t translate to a first-pair role – especially not when McDonagh isn’t playing up to his usual level and can’t compensate as much for Holden’s mistakes. While McDonagh isn’t playing his best hockey, having a higher-caliber defenseman, like Shattenkirk or even Skjei, could help facilitate his game – which should be a priority.

With McDonagh, Holden’s 5-on-5 Corsi for percentage (CF%) is 54.61, which on the surface is fine. Without McDonagh though, it drops to 38.16. Most coaches prefer looking at tangible results, specifically goals. Well, with McDonagh, Holden’s goals for percentage is 58.33. Without McDonagh, it decreases to 44.44 percent, while McDonagh’s without Holden increases to 61.54 percent. On the other hand, there’s a first-pair caliber defenseman that was signed to play with McDonagh, that guy Shattenkirk, who boosts McDonagh’s CF% to 55.95 (McDonagh’s without Shattenkirk is 50.40) – maybe he should get a longer look with him.

Plus, the Panthers’ game-winner on Tuesday came as a result of Holden’s giveaway and him screening Pavelec. Giving him a promotion the next game rather than holding him somewhat accountable isn’t the best idea either. If we’re being consistent, he should have been held accountable in some way, because if Smith did that, wouldn’t he be replaced by Kampfer for the next game?

Then again, with Holden there are some limited lineup combinations – again begging the question if there’s a better option; there isn’t at the NHL level at the moment, but maybe at the AHL level there are in Neal Pionk and Anthony DeAngelo.

As for the offense, the biggest question is how the Rangers can move forward without Zibanejad. He managed to play a full game (versus Vancouver) before his symptoms held him out against Florida on Tuesday. It’s concerning that he wasn’t removed after the hit last Friday – even though it was the end of the game – because according to the concussion protocol, he should have been.

His indefinite absence could be a problem for the Rangers, as he’s been one of their best players to start the season. Desharnais filled in for him at even-strength and on the power play this week, which was actually a surprise since he’s a bottom-six center that has been in and out of the lineup. It seemed as though the more likely answer would have been moving up Miller or Hayes for the time being. Instead, it was Desharnais, and it actually paid dividends for the Rangers. Kreider and Buchnevich’s play, particularly against the Panthers, helped ease Desharnais’s transition to this role.

Really, the only thing one can lament about the first line this week is their usage. Despite combining for three goals on Tuesday, they still didn’t lead the forwards in ice time. This shouldn’t be a surprise though, because even with Zibanejad playing down the middle of the KZB line, they usually trail players like Miller, Hayes, Vesey, Zuccarello, and Nash in ice time.

If the Rangers didn’t want to expand Desharnais’s minutes, it’s more understandable. But Buchnevich (12 5-on-5 points, plus-5.95 relative CF%, plus 11.6 relative xGF%) and Kreider (9 5-on-5 points, plus-3.2 relative CF%, plus-5.87 xGF%) certainley have earned more ice time.

A player that’s making the most of his ice time, particularly in 6-on-5 situations, is Grabner. Going back to last Sunday, Grabner tied the game against the Canucks 2-2 just 13 seconds into the third period. While he was held off the scoresheet on Tuesday, he added a hat trick on Thursday that helped solidify a win in a 2-1 game that became a 5-1 win.

Two of those three goals on Thursday were scored on an empty-net, something he’s become quite accustomed to doing with the Rangers. In 102 games with the Rangers, he’s scored 10 empty-net goals, six of which have been scored this season. And the single-season record for empty-net goal scoring is Pavel Bure’s nine in 1999-2000. At the rate he’s scoring empty-net goals, that record is within reach.

A reason he finds himself with these empty-net opportunities in New York is that the Rangers trust him defensively in these situations. And not only is his defensive play an asset, but so is his speed that can propel the Rangers out of their own zone.

The Rangers only finished their “lighter” week with two points. Defensive breakdowns that have plagued this team all season cost them the game against the Panthers. A lucky bounce got things off to a bad start when the Hurricanes visited the Rangers, and somehow after seven power plays the Rangers still trailed in shot attempts. Strong goaltending and empty-net scoring got them back into the win column.

Next week, the Rangers are tasked with three divisional matchups. They travel to Pittsburgh and Washington for games versus the Penguins and Capitals before returning home to faceoff against the New Jersey Devils. All three of their opponents are ahead of them in the standings, but three more wins could help them pull ahead of any of these teams – making these three of their most important games to date.

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