What Have We Learned: A Look at Games 27-29

Since the New York Rangers dug themselves into a hole to start the 2017-18 season, they’ve been forced to keep their eyes glued to the standings in an attempt to keep pace in the competitive Metropolitan Division. Last week the Rangers only collected two of four available points in games that should have been less daunting, only increasing the importance of their next three matchups. This week, all three of their opponents were division rivals, and all a challenge for the Rangers – but it was also a crucial opportunity to gain traction in the division

First, the Rangers looked to gain two points in Pittsburgh in their second meeting of the season. It was anticipated that Henrik Lundqvist would start in net, but the flu held him out – finally giving Ondrej Pavelec his fourth start of the season with Alexandar Georgiyev backing him up. But having Pavelec start this of all games was definitely somewhat concerning, as the Rangers were playing the reigning Stanley Cup Champions without the two best players this season, Mika Zibanejad and Lundqvist.

Somehow though, 41 saves later, the Rangers managed to walk away with two points in regulation. Conor Sheary opened the scoring with just under five minutes remaining in the first period. Boo Nieves scored his first NHL goal to pull the Rangers even soon after. The Penguins regained the lead with a goal from Phil Kessel in the second period, but Jesper Fast again made it a tie game moments later. A Mats Zuccarello goal later in the second gave the Rangers their first lead of the game. Their time with the lead was cut short, as Patric Hornqvist evened the score early in the third. Midway through the third, Pavel Buchnevich scored what would become the game-winning goal to lead the Rangers to victory.

The Rangers continued their road trip to Washington D.C. on Friday with only one lineup change: Lundqvist back between the pipes. But it just wasn’t Lundqvist’s – or any of the Rangers’ – night. Jay Beagle scored just 14 seconds into the game. Nick Backstrom doubled the Capitals’ lead midway through the second. Michael Grabner cut their lead in half though, with just under a minute remaining in the second period. In the third, Fast’s goal tied the game 2-2. But goals from Matt Niskanen and Tom Wilson reinstated the Capitals’ lead and solidified their win.

Saturday, on the second half of a back-to-back, the Rangers returned home to face off against the New Jersey Devils. Again, there was one change made to the lineup – except it wasn’t in net this time. Jimmy Vesey was demoted to the fourth line, taking Jesper Fast’s place, and Fast assumed Vesey’s place on the second line. Vesey, reunited with Paul Carey and Nieves, gave the Rangers a 1-0 lead in the first. Fast tallied his third goal of the week in the second period. Minutes later, Damon Severson scored the first Devils goal of the night, but the Rangers regained a two-point lead later that period when Zuccarello scored an unassisted goal as a Rangers’ penalty expired. Just over six minutes into the third, Zuccarello scored his second goal of the game. 13 seconds later, the Devils scored to again cut the Rangers’ lead. Kevin Hayes scored the final goal of the night soon after, and the score remained 5-2 for the final eight minutes.

So what have we learned? Jesper Fast is still scoring for the Rangers, and it’s still a welcome surprise. Throughout his career in New York, Fast’s defensive abilities have been on display. He’s been an invaluable bottom-six winger, but hasn’t provided overwhelming offensive contributions. Two weeks ago, he moved up to the second line with Rick Nash and Hayes, and surprisingly bolstered the team’s even-strength offense. It didn’t seem like Fast could continue scoring at that rate (which at the time, was 2.13 5-on-5 points per hour), especially when looking at his previous scoring totals with the Rangers. More than anything, it seemed like playing alongside more offensively inclined linemates was doing the trick.

Shortly after, he was back on the fourth line with Nieves and Carey, and while they were effective, Fast didn’t find himself on the scoresheet against the Panthers or Hurricanes. Fast remained on that same fourth line to start this week though, and in both games he scored a goal – one that was assisted by Brady Skjei and Carey in Pittsburgh, and another assisted Carey and Marc Staal in Washington. On Saturday, alongside Nash and Hayes, Fast was assisted by Nash on one goal, and contributed a secondary assist on Hayes’s goal.

Through his 24 games this season, Fast has 12 5-on-5 points that translate to a team-leading scoring rate of 2.56 points per hour. Yet despite his point accumulation, he has a 44.24 Corsi for percentage that’s below average relative to his teammates. And with Fast on the ice, the Rangers are only generating shot attempts for at a rate of 45.84 per hour, although that could be influenced by his high defensive zone starts (he leads the forwards in percentage of defensive zone starts). So, as appreciated as this offensive production is, it remains unclear if he can be expected throughout the rest of the season. That said, if he remains on the second line – and if he maintains the high-level of play seen Saturday, he should – that could change. If it does, then Fast is having an unexpected but welcome breakout season. For now though, his two-way efforts are as strong as always, and his recent offensive burst has helped lift his team into the win column.

Fast’s four points in the last three games aren’t the only source of offense worth noting for the week; Zuccarello’s are as well. Zuccarello had a primary assist on Nieves’s goal in Pittsburgh, plus he added a goal of his own that night. And while he was held off the scoresheet in Washington, Zuccarello added two goals (one of which was the game-winner) back at Madison Square Garden on Saturday.

At the 20-game mark, Zuccarello’s 5-on-5 1.33 points per hour wasn’t exactly overwhelming, especially considering the high ice time he received. But his possession numbers indicated that he was a positive influence on the team’s offense, but he just wasn’t getting the results. In the last 9 games though, he’s added seven 5-on-5 points to bring him to 13 this season. Four of those points were scored in this week’s three games alone. All together, he’s moved up the ranks on the team with a 2.03 point per hour scoring rate, and possession-wise ranks above average relative to his teammates.

Both Chris Kreider and Zuccarello had quieter starts to the season at 5-on-5; as much as they contributed to the team’s offensive generation, they weren’t getting the puck in the back of the net. For Zuccarello, there’s a pretty good reason for that – he really doesn’t shoot the puck enough, especially considering how effective his shot can be. Zuccarello is a pass-first player; it’s his exceptional vision that makes him such a valuable playmaker. More often than not, he contributes shot assists, particularly primary shot assists. While that passing is important, so is actually taking the shot. This week he did that, and it paid dividends.

Another player that stood out this week was Carey. Yes, you read that right. The player that was on the roster to start the season but wasn’t effective enough to convince the coaches to deploy 12 forwards for a time – which led to the team using a flawed 11 forward/seven defenseman approach that was damaging to their season start – that Carey. When David Desharnais was moving in and out of the lineup due to some costly decisions in his own zone, Carey drew back in.

There have been quite a few iterations of the fourth line this season. This week there were two: Carey-Nieves-Vesey, and Carey-Nieves-Fast. And in both combinations, Carey stood out this week. He’s earned a point in each of his last four games – a goal against Carolina, and an assist in all three games this week.

So far, Carey’s played 17 games this season with the Rangers. And for most of those, it was questioned whether he belonged on this roster, or even at the NHL level. The latter may still be true, and there still may be more effective options in Hartford than Carey, but recently he’s elevated his play enough to be considered an effective part of the fourth line. There are definitely still flaws to his game, flaws that may not get refined this season or that would be acceptable for a younger player (like Vinni Lettieri if he were to be recalled). But if he can continue to play at this level, then he will likely maintain his place on the fourth line.

Lastly, we learned some things about the goaltending on this team – and not just at the NHL level. Focusing on the NHL level though, the Rangers have two goaltenders to backstop their team: Henrik Lundqvist and Ondrej Pavelec. Lundqvist has played a lot, and not just for a 35-year-old but for any goaltender in this league, and it’s concerning. As strong as Lundqvist has been in net for the Rangers this year, continuing his record of game-changing play and helping them turn the season around, he still needs more support from his team. The team in front of him isn’t strong enough defensively and he needs support from his backup – which requires the coaches to give him a start here and there.

Well, the “here” was against the Penguins on Tuesday because Lundqvist had the flu. Pavelec had appeared in a few games in November, as recently as November 28, when he relieved Lundqvist against the Panthers in a game that he probably should have started. But he hadn’t actually started since October 28 against the Montreal Canadiens. So, of all the games for Pavelec to receive his first start in over a month, this one wasn’t exactly ideal.

When a backup goaltender is in net, the hope is that the team in front provides additional support because they usually can’t rely on their backup to be the game-changer that their starter can be. When that starter is Lundqvist, a generational talent, there’s usually an even greater discrepancy in the play between starter and backup. Against the Penguins, the Rangers didn’t exactly provide Pavelec with that additional support, as he faced 44 shots. Impressively enough though, he stopped 41 of those 44 shots. At 5-on-5, the Penguins generated 59 shot attempts and 27 shots on goal, and scored on two of those shots. Pavelec finished the night with a 0.943 save percentage and 0.14 goals saved above average.

Pavelec’s game still could use some sharpening, and goaltending coach Benoit Allaire should provide that, but the Rangers needed all 41 of those saves to collect those two points. With more playing time, he should continue to improve and hopefully can become a more reliable backup for Lundqivst. He shouldn’t necessarily be expected to be the next Cam Talbot or Antti Raanta, but he is expected to relieve Lundqvist of such a steep workload.

With four games this week against the Dallas Stars, Ottawa Senators, Los Angeles Kings, and Boston Bruins, Pavelec should be tapped to start again. Should they expect him to steal another game? Probably not. Hopefully he receives more defensive support in his next start to facilitate his game even more.

This past week, the Rangers looked to gain six points on their division rivals. They only collected four, which leaves them just one point out of a wild card seed and keeps the Metropolitan Division even tighter than before. With four games this upcoming week, the Rangers have the opportunity to earn an additional eight points that could help them move not just into a wild card spot, but into the first three seeds of the Metropolitan Division.

It’s another big week for the Rangers even though they don’t face any division opponents. But isn’t every week a big week when you’re trying to dig yourself out of the early-season hole and keep pace in the ultra-competitive Metropolitan Division?

*5v5 data via Corsica.hockey