The Rangers have played 38 games this season. New Year’s Eve marked the end of a very tumultuous year in Rangers hockey that saw a coaching change, fan favorites shipped off to East Coast rivals, and an attempt to birth a new generation of competitive hockey. The end result is yet to be seen, but the Rangers are already performing better than many expected.
Heading into the 2018-19 season, this team was expected to be a last place team in the midst of an aggressive rebuild. And while the second part of that statement is true, the Rangers find themselves with a winning record only five points out of playoff position. But that doesn’t mean their work is done, nor does that mean that they should tank the second half of the season.
There have been many highs and lows in this first half, but with their win last night, they closed out 2018 with two victories. Both were on the road including a comeback win versus a beaten up but competitive Nashville Predators team.
Resolution #1: Tighten up late game defense.
The Rangers have found themselves struggling to close out games this year. They consistently blow leads, especially in the final minutes. One of the worst occasions on which this occurred was several weeks ago in a Friday night matchup with the Coyotes at the Garden.
The Rangers jumped out to an aggressive 3-0 lead, only to gradually blow it and get burned in OT by none other than former Ranger Derek Stepan. A more recent example is the game against the Blue Jackets. The Rangers held a lead in the third period bringing it all the way down to a couple minutes left, where they then allowed a game tying goal.
A strong rush from the wing by Pierre-Luc Dubois solidified the Jackets comeback in OT, as the Rangers yet again lost after blowing a lead. Scenarios like these have occurred too often this year, and should bring into question the coaching of the defense and the future of Lindy Ruff in this organization.
In addition, the Rangers have on multiple occasions put their worst defenders, such as Brendan Smith, on the ice during these important moments. As if they didn’t learn their lesson from Alain Vigneault’s playoff blunders against the Ottawa Senators two years ago.
Resolution #2: Restore game speed and effort.
To much surprise, the Rangers had a stretch during this first half that saw them win nine out of twelve games, right before losing a back-to-back after Thanksgiving.
The Rangers looked like a team that could make a run for the playoffs during that stretch. They were strong on the puck, played well enough defense to support the already stellar play of Henrik Lundqvist, and more importantly they found ways to win.
One key aspect of this streak was their speed and grit in the offensive zone. They would consistently get to the loose pucks after a dump in or after a good forecheck, and then proceed to set up shop. They were able to score goals and maintain offensive zone pressure from their strong play on the boards and frequency of shots. But during this second portion of this first half of the season that saw the team struggle to come away with wins, their effort in producing offense seemingly dropped off.
When they dump the puck in, they try to get there but admit defeat too quickly, rather than continuing to pressure and force turnovers like they used to. If they want to win games, they must return to this relentless style of play. If they don’t they’ll continue to lose close games. It is that extra effort that counts.
Resolution #3: Improve shot blocking.
The Rangers have been severely lacking in this area this year. When looking at the list of league leading shot blockers, the Rangers only have one player in the top 50. And even at that, you would need to scroll down to number 38, where you’ll find Neal Pionk who is leading the team in blocked shots.
Blocking shots not only makes life easier on a goaltender, but favorable bounces often lead to fast breaks and odd man rushes the other way. Who can forget the rock solid defense the Rangers had under now current Jackets head coach John Tortorella. This was due to their shot blocking ability and willingness to step in front of any shot. The Rangers must do a better job getting in the shooting lanes to improve their defense and help spur offense going the other way.
What New Year’s Resolutions would you like to the Rangers or some of their players and coaches make? Sound off in the comments below!