by Deb Seymour
If we were going to describe the biggest surprise so far of this NY Rangers’ season, it would probably be the same as the biggest surprise of the season for all active sports leagues — how much impact Covid-19 is having, yet again, despite players being vaccinated and the regular testing that’s been happening (that by now feels like it’s been going on since the dawn of time). But that surprise is one that’s affecting all teams in all leagues of all sports. The secondary impact of the surprise, however, is the whirlwind of player changes and game postponements occurring daily, leading to some lineup configurations across all sports that no one could have imagined preseason — and in some cases, that no one would even have wanted preseason.
In the case of the Rangers, there are several players who show up on any given day not knowing which line they’re playing on, and who their linemates might be. And if they’re defensemen, with whom they might be paired for a given game. Now, I’m not a hockey player and nor have I even been one; but I’m assuming that for hockey players it works like it does for players on any sports team: you generally know whom you’re going to be playing alongside on a given day and where you fit into the lineup. Sure, there will be changes here and there. But certainly not at the rate we’ve been seeing it across the league this season, and not at the rate that Rangers’ players have had to adapt this season.
So, if I’m Dryden Hunt, by now I could be playing on the second, third, or fourth line on any given day. If I’m Alexis Lafreniere, I could be playing on the first, second, or third line on any given day. And if I’m Barclay Goodrow, I could be playing on any of the four lines on any given day. Moreover, if I’m Adam Fox, I could be paired with someone other than Ryan Lindgren on any given day. And if I’m Libor Hajek, I could be paired with any of the regular defensemen on any given day. And so forth.
Now here comes the main surprise that isn’t applicable to just any team in any sport during this Covid-19 era: the Rangers, despite the unpredictability of it all, are making it work. Their record speaks for itself. They’ve had some bad games — and more often than not they have some bad periods in some decent (or even very good) games. But despite the constant unpredictability, they’re winning more than they’re not winning. And by a pretty decent margin, at that. We know a lot of that is due to their goaltending, which between Igor Shestyorkin and Alexandar Georgiev has been nothing short of outstanding lately. But the goals are scoring and the power plays are producing and the penalties are being killed and even the shootouts are getting the job done. This has become a team that if they consistently had three good periods a game, would really make heads turn. More than they are already.
The biggest non-surprise is that at full strength (or in five-on-five play), the Rangers are still underachieving. The second biggest non-surprise is that the Rangers are still playing to the game situation instead of sticking to the game plan, especially in third periods. Why are these non-surprises? Because these were weaknesses of the team even before the Covid-19 and injury bugs really hit the Rangers hard this season. And trying to overcome your worst weaknesses when you’re already trying to compensate for losing important players daily is the hardest thing to do.
Here’s Monday night’s scoring chances report, in a 4-1 home victory over the Edmonton Oilers, courtesy of Steve Valiquette on Twitter:
Pretty unusual to see the scoring chances of the two teams equal. The Rangers exceeded their expected goals, and only one of the four goals (by Chris Kreider) was on the power play. That’s both good and bad: the Rangers took advantage of the five power plays they had throughout the game; but only scored once during those opportunities.
Here’s the stat line from the game, which fleshes out the scoring report a bit more:
The Rangers had both more hits and more blocks than the Oilers during the game. Ironically, this was a very defensive game for the Rangers due to the quality of the Oilers’ forecheck. And yet they managed to score three even strength goals despite the necessary focus on defense. The rest of the stat line should basically come as no surprise: the Rangers had fewer shots on goal than the Oilers; they won only 38% of their face-off opportunities; and they had more than twice as many give-aways as the Oilers. The Oilers are a good team going through a very poor play streak right now, and perhaps we can attribute the decisive Rangers’ win to the Oilers just not being themselves at the moment. But the unsurprising numbers in the stat line tell the undesirable part of the Rangers’ story so far this season: when they dominate a good team, which they did against the Oilers, it’s at least in part because that team was just not playing their usual game that day.
Rangers fans hope they can keep riding the hot streak no matter how many key players are out because they’re in Covid-19 protocol. The Rangers this year are an exciting team with a lot of potential. There’s room for improvement, but they’re getting the job done despite a season-ending injury to Sammy Blais and the constant unpredictability of who’ll be in the lineup during the current stretch. They seem to have good chemistry, the youth of the team provides a lot of hope for the future, and when they play a consistent game for 60 minutes they can basically hang with the best in the league. Are the Rangers making heads turn in the NHL? They are. And with a little more improvement and some continued luck, the non-surprises may turn into some positive surprises down the road.