What Have We Learned: A Look at Games 30-33

In any game, a team may perform better, but not get the end result they deserve – a win. On the other hand, a team may collect two points despite not deserving them based on their 60 minutes (or more) of play.

It happens. Hockey is filled with so many random variables that can influence the result of a game. But to have that elusive key to a winning NHL season – sustainable success – it’s important to build off every game by truly assessing a team’s performance, regardless of whether their latest game ended with a win or where they currently sit in the standings.

This season has been a mixed bag for the New York Rangers. There have been some spectacular efforts that have translated to two points and some that haven’t. Earlier this season, as their playoff chances all but slipped away, it wasn’t all bad on the ice; in fact, there were a handful of games in which the Rangers pieced together a strong effort but couldn’t earn a win.

By the end of October and through much of November though, the Rangers were able to climb the standings with some much-needed wins. But as much as they won games and collected the two points they craved, those points weren’t always necessarily deserved. Flaws still shined through their game and while some were addressed, many were left untouched because the result overshadowed those aspects that needed remedying. When that happens, and a team’s quality of play deteriorates and those wins eventually turn to losses until their game improves.

The Metropolitan Division is so competitive that any loss can be detrimental to a team’s playoff chances. As much as the Rangers caught up in the playoff race, they still have to maintain that place in the standings and continue to move up. But those chances are going to diminish if they don’t learn from the mistakes that should have cost them more games (but luckily didn’t). This past week, some of those flaws did cost them games and crucial points.

The Rangers had eight points in sight last week, but only added five. First, the Dallas Stars met the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. Then, the Rangers traveled to Ottawa to face off against the struggling Senators. The Rangers returned home to battle the Los Angeles Kings Friday night; 22 hours later, they were back in action in Boston to complete the week.

The first two games of the week, against the Dallas Stars and Ottawa Senators, were anything but pretty. The Rangers were severely outplayed by the Stars on Monday. Julius Honka’s goal gave the Stars a 1-0 lead in the second period, though the score was evened by a Rick Nash goal in the third. Some questionable choices in the shootout cost the Rangers a second point, although they were lucky to earn a single point at all and have to thank Ondrej Pavelec for his game-changing play that kept this game within reach.

Wednesday’s matchup against the Senators wasn’t much more encouraging. The Senators having been spiraling on and off the ice, so the Rangers should have had an advantage. Bobby Ryan opened the scoring in the first period. In the second period, Michael Grabner tied the game, but the Senators were able to regain the lead later that period. Eight seconds into the third period, the Senators added to their lead. Pavel Buchnevich again made it a one-goal game later in the third period, but the Rangers weren’t able to pull even or ahead.

The Rangers looked to bounce back from their two straight losses against the Kings. Chris Kreider opened the scoring with a power play goal – something they’ve been missing without Zibanejad in the lineup. Former Ranger Marion Gaborik tied the game in the second period. A goal from Kevin Hayes gave the Rangers a lead later that period – but the Kings once again pulled even in the third. Rick Nash scored what would become the game-winner and J.T. Miller’s empty-netter in the final minute sealed this win.

Twenty-two hours after their Friday night start, the Rangers were ready to take on the Bruins. Grabner scored his 16th goal of the year in the first period to give his team the lead. Miller added a power play goal early in the second to extend their lead. Danton Heinen added a goal late in the second period to pull the Bruins within one, and Brad Marchand tied the game with a power play goal in the third period. In overtime, with the Rangers on the man-advantage, it was Mats Zuccarello with the biggest goal of the night – the game-winner.

So what have we learned? Ryan McDonagh still is playing, well, un-McDonagh-like, and it really showed this week. If injuries are the cause of the problem, then he shouldn’t be playing and potentially re-aggravating this injury – especially not when the Rangers are going to need him healthy in the spring. But since the Rangers dug themselves such a deep hole earlier this season, winning each game is critical and the best lineup has to be deployed. The best lineup, though, shouldn’t include an injured player (if that’s the case), because it’s only going to cause more long-term problems that the Rangers likely aren’t equipped to deal with.

There were a lot of expectations for the Rangers’ captain moving into this season, as it was the first season he wouldn’t have his stalwart partner Dan Girardi on his right. But it was a necessary change for this team moving forward. Offseason acquisition Kevin Shattenkirk looked like the obvious choice to replace Girardi.

That hasn’t really been the case though. Shattenkirk and McDonagh only have played 43.1 minutes of 5v5 ice time together, despite accumulating a 56.98 Corsi for percentage (plus-11.98 relative) in that time. Yes it was a small sample, but it was a sample that should have encouraged the coaches enough to give them a longer look. McDonagh also played with Brendan Smith for some time (77.23 minutes) prior to Smith’s extended break in the press box; the pair really didn’t impress, but neither defensemen was at their best individually at the time either.

For the most part, McDonagh’s been utilized with Holden (250.58 5v5 minutes). They’ve earned a 45.95 CF% (plus-0.16 relative) and 49.72 xGF% (plus-0.56 relative). This pair hasn’t been awful, but they haven’t been great either. Without Holden, McDonagh’s CF% is 45.85; Holden’s without McDonagh is 37.95 – and that’s concerning.

They’ve had their moments of being fine, but they definitely aren’t a first pair-caliber combination. Holden is not a number two defenseman – and that’s fine, no one expects him to be – but when the number one defenseman isn’t at his best and can’t compensate for Holden’s mistakes, it becomes a problem. And when McDonagh is struggling and making such un-McDonagh-like mistakes, it would help to have a defenseman to help balance him out and compensate for his mistakes. Holden isn’t that.

This week, no defenseman was without fault. Most were guilty of costly mistakes. To begin the season, the issue was that there wasn’t consistency in the defensive pairs. Now there’s a little too much consistency with pairs that have become stagnant. When the forwards aren’t scoring, the lines are changed. When the defense struggles, especially this much (just ask Pavelec about his last two starts or Henrik Lundqvist about his entire career as the Rangers’ backbone), it means it’s time to shake up the pairs. And no, that doesn’t mean throwing Steven Kampfer back into the mix. It means optimizing the pairs with the six defensemen that are currently in the lineup. And the pairs may not be the only necessary change.

At 5v5, the Rangers have the fourth-lowest CF% of 46.64. They face shot attempts against at the third highest rate in the league (61.68 per hour). And they have the worst expected goals against per hour of 2.81.

The defense was a major reason the Rangers lost their chance at the Stanley Cup last season, so the front office made personnel changes. Unfortunately, those changes aren’t enough right now. The pairs aren’t optimal for this defense and the strategies they’re asked to employ are still questionable. As much as the players individually have to refine their games, it seems there’s an overarching problem that’s plaguing the defense: the coaches.

Let’s shift to offense. We learned this week that Mats Zuccarello is really good at hockey. Oh wait, we already knew that. We were reminded that Mats Zuccarello is really good at hockey. His performance two weeks ago merited praise, as he scored three goals and an assist (all at even-strength) to help his team collected four of six available points. While he didn’t score against Dallas, he tallied an assist on both Wednesday and Friday, plus the game-winning power play goal in overtime on Saturday.

Zuccarello has boosted his 5v5 scoring to 1.84 points per hour. Even more impressive is that 12 of his 14 5v5 points are primary (1.58 primary points per hour, which ranks fourth on the team). So often Zuccarello is criticized for his pass-first mentality. As stellar as his vision and playmaking are, it’s sometimes better for him to take the shot himself. The past two weeks he did that and it paid dividends, and it did again on Saturday.

Last week, we learned that Mika Zibanejad was practicing again. This week, we learned that he’s expected to return for tonight’s matchup against the Anaheim Ducks. Zibanejad’s return is huge for the Rangers – as long as he’s actually healthy enough to return. He’s a major piece of this team, and in his absence, it’s become clearer than ever that he’s truly this team’s first-line center.

The return of Zibanejad means the return of the KZB line, and hopefully its dominance. The first line’s usage was expected to change without Zibanejad, but it doesn’t excuse the low ice times for Kreider or Buchnevich – you know, two of the team’s most productive forwards. Will that change with Zibanejad back?

While Zibanejad has been out, Hayes has taken on more responsibilities and ice time to help fill the gap. And Hayes has handed it quite well. This week, Hayes added a goal and as assist.

All together this year, Hayes has scored 14 points – all of which have been at 5v5 (1.91 per hour). He has also maintained an above average Corsi for relative to his teammates (plus-0.53) and expected goals for (plus-3.93), despite starting in the defensive zone 35.65 percent of the time (second highest on offense) and offensive zone only 25.36 percent of the time (third lowest on offense). With Zibanejad out, Hayes has rightfully earned power play time, although it still remains to be seen why he didn’t receive power play time all season.

While Hayes has emulated the team’s first line center in terms of ice time and usage, the player that’s actually stepped into Zibanejad’s place in the lineup was David Desharnais. It was assumed that Hayes or Miller would move up in the lineup to fill the void left by Zibanejad, but to minimize line changes, Desharnais was simply slotted into the KZB line.

On the surface, Desharnais has been fine in this combination because they’ve been on the ice for five 5v5 goals for and only two against (71.43 goals for percentage that’s plus-22.99 relative). The fact is though that this line’s underlying numbers are concerning (minus-3.77 relative Corsi, minus-3.63 relative expected goals, and a high 108.93 PDO). With Desharnais down the middle, this line just doesn’t drive play like they do when Zibanejad’s there instead.

Should we have expected Desharnais to match Zibanejad’s level of play? No. Really, he did a serviceable job as a first-line center on the surface, but it’s not where he belongs in the lineup. Although this gave him a chance to earn his place in the lineup moving forward – something that was confirmed during yesterday’s practice, as he will play on the fourth line tonight. The issue is that Boo Nieves is the player coming out of the lineup for Desharnais to remain in.

Nieves may not have earned any points this week, but overall since joining the Rangers, he’s played well ­– certainly well enough to maintain his place in the lineup. He’s managed to have positive possession numbers relative to his teammates, even while facing the lowest percentage of offensive zone starts of the forwards on this team (23.57 percent). Nieves has adjusted to the NHL-level and is growing in that role – only for it to be disrupted by these unnecessary changes. On the other hand there’s Desharnais, whose possession numbers have been pretty dismal despite some of the most favorable zone starts.

Switching Nieves to the wing to give Desharnais a spot on the fourth line, or shifting Desharnais to the wing so Nieves could maintain his role, seem like better options for this lineup. Instead Paul Carey, who yes, has been much better in recent games, maintains his role on the fourth line wing, while Nieves gets a seat in the press box. It just doesn’t look like the right decision right now or for the future, as an extended time out of the lineup could affect Nieves’s development which should be more of a priority.

As much as the Rangers turned around their season and improved their playoff chances, they still haven’t learned from their mistakes – or at least, haven’t learned enough from their mistakes. Defense hasn’t been a strength all season, when it should be with this lineup. The pairs aren’t optimal, the strategies are questionable, and no defenseman has been without fault this season. And this week, their defensive flaws were on display numerous times, and subsequently cost them crucial points.

But this isn’t a problem limited to this week; if it wasn’t for some game-changing play from their goaltenders, the Rangers wouldn’t be in the playoff conversation at all. Lundqvist has had to be, well, Lundqvist. And now that Pavelec is finally getting starts again, he’s elevated his game too, although he shouldn’t have had to make over 40 saves in each of his last two starts.

With the return of Zibanejad, the Rangers scoring should become more dynamic and even more of a strength to this team – a strength that they need as long as the defense isn’t playing as well as it should.

Every team is flawed and every team earns wins even when they don’t deserve them, but it’s not a recipe for sustainable success. Unfortunately, the Rangers just haven’t found that yet. While they have an opportunity to earn eight vital points this week, against the Ducks, New Jersey Devils, and Toronto Maple Leafs, it’s critical that they don’t just steal points, but actually build their own success in a way that carry them into the future.

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