The Blueshirts were expected to be fighting for their playoff lives this season. Instead, they have a nice cushion – thanks to their balanced attack.
There’s little doubt the New York Rangers will make the Stanley Cup playoffs. On the surface, that statement might not elicit much surprise considering they’ve played games into late April six straight seasons and only missed out once since 2004-05.
But the Rangers were far from post-season shoo-ins back in October. With an aging core – one that was steamrolled by Pittsburgh in the first round – the Rangers were thought to be a bubble team when it came to playoff contention. They were slotted fifth in the Metropolitan Division in The Hockey News 2016-17 Yearbook and projected to play no more than 82 games.
Yet, here they are on Feb. 4 comfortably in the first wild card position in the Eastern Conference. They have a seven-point advantage over the second wild-card team, the Philadelphia Flyers, with a game in hand. They’re within striking distance of Pittsburgh and Columbus in the Metro, too. Their plus-37 goal deferential, third best in the East behind Washington and Columbus, shows they’re no fluke either.
Casual observers would probably assume goaltender Henrik Lundqvist deserves most of the credit for the Rangers’ strong standing. Of course, that’s not the case. Lundqvist in the midst of his worst NHL season with very a pedestrian 2.73 save percentage and .907 save percentage. Not good considering he traditionally stops 92 percent of the shots he faces.
So if Lundqvist doesn’t deserve the lion’s share of the credit, who, or what, does? Well, it’s Rangers offense.
The Rangers boast the league’s second most prodigious attack, scoring 3.35 goals per game. They have five players who have recorded at least 35 points. That total is tied with Pittsburgh for second in the NHL, one less than the Minnesota Wild.
None of the five names – Mats Zuccarello, J.T. Miller, Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider and Kevin Hayes – would be classified as a superstar and none are averaging anywhere close to a point per game. In particular, Miller, Kreider and Hayes are all buoyed by shooting percentages of 15 percent or greater, well above the average of nine. But Zuccarello and Stepan, with 7.4 and 9.3 percent marks respectively, are scoring successfully at some of the lowest rates of their careers and still shouldn’t too far off reaching their career norms. And then there’s Michael Grabner’s goal-scoring renaissance. The right winger had just nine goals in 80 games with Toronto last season, but already has 22 in 50 contests. He’s the NHL leader with 22 even-strength goals, albeit with a 19.8 shooting percentage.
The Rangers could even get a bit of an offensive boost when left winger Rick Nash (groin) and center Mika Zibanejad (broken fibula) return to the lineup. If Lundqvist can give them goaltending anywhere near his normal rate, the Rangers could be a team to watch out for down the stretch – and, of course, in the playoffs.