Recent stretch indicative of where New York Rangers are in their quest to become a contender

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Dec 12, 2021; New York, New York, USA; Nashville Predators left wing Filip Forsberg (9) skates between New York Rangers center Mika Zibanejad (93) and New York Rangers right wing Kaapo Kakko (24) during the second period at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Rangers have had surprising success so far this season. But they’ve struggled slightly during this recent stretch of games.

They’ve lost three of their last five after winning seven straight. This says a lot about where the team in their development process to become a contender. The Rangers are a better team than they were last year, but are experiencing some adversity right now. They need to use this as a learning opportunity in order to improve into a real contender.

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Rangers show clear differences from last year

One issue for the Rangers last season was always trying to make a perfect play. While that has been the case at times this season, overall they’ve appeared to be more open to battling and getting greasy goals. That’s an important step. Successful teams understand that they can’t wait for or rely on a fancy play. Especially in the playoffs where all elements of the game are more intense, gritty goals are important.

The power play has also seen an improvement from last year. The Rangers finished last season 14th in the NHL in power play percentage at 20.7% and are currently sixth at 25.0%. There was too much passing last season and not enough shooting. They’ve gotten away from that to an extent this season and started shooting more which has helped elevate their power play.

Losing three of last five serves as reminder there’s work to be done

Two losses to the Colorado Avalanche and one to the Nashville Predators shows that the Rangers are not ready to be a contender yet. Colorado has been a powerful offensive force in the NHL for several years now. They act as a good test for the Rangers to determine who exactly they can compete against. The first loss was embarrassing but involved a tough travel day and the Rangers looked fatigued. The second was better only losing 4-2 and actually making things interesting late in the game.

These games demonstrate that the Rangers are making progress but are lacking in some areas. They have two solid defense pairs with the third struggling at times. Even on that second pair, there are still improvements to be made. Jacob Trouba is really embracing his physical style of play of late. He is at his best when he’s playing this way, and K’Andre Miller should start incorporating this more into his own game. With his size at 6’5″ 210lbs, he has a great reach but could also use that size towards physicality. Patrik Nemeth is not proving to be an effective defense partner for Nils Lundkvist which is something that needs to be addressed, possibly at the trade deadline.

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The Rangers can rely on their top two lines for scoring most nights, however they need more from the third and fourth lines more consistently. The bottom two lines have games where they produce. Particularly, the fourth line has been a force some nights. Teams succeed with strong fourth lines that play physically and represent the team’s identity. Some games, the Rangers fourth line fits this description, but they need this to be the case even more consistently.

More scoring is needed from the third line. With Alexis Lafrenière in his second year, the Rangers need him to start producing more. Kaapo Kakko is starting to pick up his game as part of the top six, and now Lafrenière must do the same. Ideally, Lafrenière would be moved up to the second line and Dryden Hunt down to the third. But Lafrenière is going to have to do more to break the top six.

Close win over Arizona will hopefully get Rangers back on track

The Arizona Coyotes are currently at the bottom of the standings, meaning the Rangers, in theory, should have been able to beat them comfortably. They played in Colorado the night before but still shouldn’t have struggled as much as they did early in the game. In the first period, the Rangers weren’t putting on much pressure and were having trouble getting out of their own end at all. It just looked like a low effort performance.

As one would expect, the Rangers were able to find their game in the second half and came out with a 3-2 win. Kaapo Kakko scored twice, and Mika Zibanejad scored once. Zibanejad seems to be getting out of his early season funk. The Rangers need their best players to be their best players like any other team. Zibanejad starting to score contributes to this.

It wasn’t an easy game, but this win should help the Rangers get back on track. Overall, these last five games have been revealing about where the Rangers are in their process. It’s evident that they’re not quite ready to be a contender yet but are on the right path.

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