February 21, 2021

Wins over Flyers and Capitals could be a turning point for the Rangers season

Feb 20, 2021; Washington, District of Columbia, USA; New York Rangers left wing Alexis Lafreni┬Ćere (13) celebrates after scoring a goal on Washington Capitals goaltender Vitek Vanecek (41) in the second period at Capital One Arena. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Rangers made what is proving to be a truly excellent decision in hiring Jacque Martin in the offseason. Since the beginning of the 2020-21 season, their defensive play and structure has steadily improved. It may very well be the most significant difference in the team’s play between last season and now.

Defensive improvement key for Rangers

The Rangers have given up 41 goals against which is seven below the league average at 48. While seven is not many, this stat shows that they can compete with some of the tighter defensive teams in the league. The Islanders, for example, who have given 40 goals against which is only one less than the Rangers.

The penalty kill was strong again this week with the Rangers going five for five against Philadelphia on Thursday and four for four against Washington on Saturday. The Rangers currently rank sixth in the league in penalty kill percentage at 85.7%. They finished last season at 77.4%.

Rangers getting production from their top six

The top six were prominent on Thursday and Saturday this week quite possibly for the first time consistently this season. Pavel Buchnevich, Artemi Panarin, and Ryan Strome all picked up assists on goals by Colin Blackwell and Brendan Smith against the Flyers. Kaapo Kakko and Artemi Panarin both scored in the shootout to give the Rangers the win. While Blackwell and Smith may have been the only goal scorers in regulation, the assists by the Rangers top six forwards indicates play making and effective communication on the ice.

Feb 18, 2021; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; New York Rangers left wing Artemi Panarin (10) and defenseman Anthony Bitetto (22) celebrate win against the Philadelphia Flyers at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Chris Kreider, Alexis Lafreniere, Ryan Strome, and Mika Zibanejad all scored against the Capitals on Saturday. Panarin and Buchnevich picked up two assists each. This is the kind of production the Rangers need from their top six and the main element that has been missing.

The goal Saturday was Lafreniere’s second career NHL goal. It appears Lafreniere is becoming more comfortable with the pace of the NHL game. Hopefully these things combined will spur more consistent production from him moving forward.

Zibanejad’s goal was only his second of the season. The team and fanbase alike breathed a collective sigh of relief as this broke his 13-game goal drought. While it was an empty netter, it could be a very significant turning point for Zibanejad individually. This could give him a confidence boost leading to the point production we’re used to seeing from him.

Overall, the 4-1 win over the Capitals showed the Ranger’s top six finding their game. If they can continue this kind of production, the Rangers will certainly be headed in the right direction.

Faceoff improvement and strong goaltending important factors this week

The Rangers had been struggling on faceoffs this season. However, this is another factor that has shown growth of late. Their faceoff percentage against the Flyers was 54.8% and 57.1% against the Capitals. Winning faceoffs to gain puck possession is an area where the Rangers were getting into some trouble as they would too often be left scrambling to get possession. The faceoff results this week helped a bit with this situation.

Alex Georgiev was solid against the Flyers on Thursday as he made several highlight reel saves. He only gave up two goals on 22 shots for a .909 save percentage. Additionally, he was excellent in the shootout allowing only Sean Couturier’s wrist shot to get past him. Other than his shutout against the Islanders in game two of the season, this was Georgiev’s best performance of the year.

Igor Shesterkin was a brick wall against the Capitals, only allowing one goal on 27 shots for a .963 save percentage. The one goal he did give up was one he probably wishes he could have back. Further, it appears Shesterkin is back to the form we saw when he arrived in New York late last season. Confidence never seems to be an issue for him and now he’s finding his game. His consistency as the number one goaltender is very exciting for this Rangers team.

Related: Rangers coming together more important than their record

Rangers finding their identity

rangers vs capitals
Feb 20, 2021; Washington, District of Columbia, USA; New York Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin (31) celebrates with Rangers left wing Alexis Lafreni┬Ćere (13) after their game against the Washington Capitals at Capital One Arena. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

With advancements in defense, production from the top six, and strong goaltending, the Rangers are starting to look like a more solid team. One of their biggest issues earlier in the season was communication and lack of cohesion, however these are less of a concern now.

Effort has not been an issue other than the game against the Devils on Tuesday. The Rangers have truly worked hard in nearly every game this season, they just haven’t necessarily gotten the results. Holding on in the game against the Flyers is a reflection of their hard work and getting rewarded for it.

Their performance against the Capitals was a display of what they can do when everyone comes to play and their best players are their best players. It is going to take some more times for this young Rangers team to truly find their identity and really compete, but these two games were definitely a step in the right direction. They need to ride this momentum into next week as these games could be significant turning point.

Note: All stats came from hockeyreference.com and nhl.com.

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