A wider-lens view of where the Rangers stand after mediocre January, strong post-break play

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A wider-lens view of where the Rangers stand after mediocre January, strong post-break play

NEW YORK — After a January defined by mediocre results, the New York Rangers appear back on track. They’re riding a four-game winning streak and have yet to lose in three games since the calendar flipped to February. Two of those victories came against quality opponents: the Colorado Avalanche and Tampa Bay Lightning.

“We talked going into break,” captain Jacob Trouba said. “It was a new month. We wanted to pick up our game going through February and close the January chapter.”

And with good reason. The Rangers entered January with a league-best 25-9-1 record, then proceeded to go 5-7-2. Coach Peter Laviolette’s team had bad offensive luck at points, but they gave up five or more goals five times during the month. They no longer looked like one of the Eastern Conference’s best teams.

Now they appear back on track. Let’s dive into what was ailing the Rangers, what they did to fix it and what’s sustainable going forward.


Goaltending

Jonathan Quick’s strong play allowed Igor Shesterkin to take a reset and get additional time with goaltending coach Benoit Allaire coming out of the All-Star break. Shesterkin returned to the net Friday against the Chicago Blackhawks and stopped 28 of 31 shots faced in a Rangers overtime win. He showed some fire, too, throwing a couple jabs at Nick Foligno when the Chicago forward was in his crease after a whistle.

“I thought Igor looked good,” Laviolette told reporters in Chicago postgame. “If you look at the goals, there’s not a lot he can do on them. … He made some big saves.”

Getting Shesterkin back to his Vezina-caliber form is paramount for the Rangers. In January, he allowed 9.83 goals fewer than expected, worst in the league, and had an .863 save percentage. But when he’s at his best, he can steal games. Quick’s resurgence has been both a feel-good story and a huge boost for the Rangers, but expecting the 38-year-old to carry the team in the postseason is likely too much to ask. Shesterkin will be key for the team.

In January, the Rangers had more than 50 percent of the five-on-five expected goal share in 10 of 14 games, per Natural Stat Trick. The difference was too often an opponent’s goaltender outplaying Shesterkin. Friday’s win, albeit against a lowly opponent, was perhaps a positive step in that changing for the Rangers.


Jonathan Quick’s resurgence this season has been a feel-good story and a huge boost for the Rangers. (Wendell Cruz / USA Today)

Power play

The Rangers still have the fifth-best power-play conversion rate (26.1 percent) in the league, but it’s been dropping since the start of January. They have a 14.9 percent conversion rate since then, which ranks 25th in the league. That’s not ideal for a team that relies heavily on its special teams units to come through.

Though the team has played better since the All-Star break, the power play has yet to convert on six tries. New York has had chances to put games out of reach with the man advantage but hasn’t been able to convert. At points, it looks passive and seems to make too many passes rather than putting a shot on net.

“When things are going well, everything that you’re trying to do on the power play kind of works out one way or the other,” Mika Zibanejad said at the end of January. “When things are not as easy and free flowing on the power play we’ve just got to dig down a little bit. We talk about it being a little more simple. Just try to get an ugly one and go from there.”

In a move aimed at sparking the power play, Laviolette split up his top unit at practice Sunday. He moved Vincent Trocheck and Artemi Panarin to the second unit with Erik Gustafsson, Alexis Lafrenière and Kaapo Kakko. Adam Fox, Blake Wheeler, Jonny Brodzinski, Zibanejad and Chris Kreider made up the top unit.

With Panarin, the team’s best offensive player, now on the second unit, one can expect the units to get a more even split in ice time.

Bottom-six play

The Rangers struggled to get consistent play from their bottom six in January, which is part of why general manager Chris Drury made a personnel change, waiving veteran Nick Bonino.

Here are numbers from the group’s mainstays in January:

  • Will Cuylle: 5 points, +4 in 14 games
  • Nick Bonino: 0 points, -8 in 11 games
  • Jimmy Vesey: 4 points, -4 in 14 games
  • Barclay Goodrow: 1 point, -5 in 14 games
  • Jonny Brodzinski: 3 points, +2 in 14 games

Though still only a three-game sample size, the bottom six has performed much better this month. Laviolette has put Brodzinski at center between Cuylle and Kakko, and that trio has a positive expected goals-for rate. Goodrow and Vesey are on the fourth line, and both had multi-point nights in Wednesday’s win against Tampa Bay. Rookie Adam Edstrom was recently recalled and could get a look Monday against Calgary.

The Rangers will be in the market for forwards as the trade deadline nears. Depending on the level of player Drury acquires, there could be a trickle-down effect. If he gets a top-six wing, for example, Wheeler would likely move to the third or fourth line. The front office could also attempt to acquire center depth, which would allow Goodrow or Brodzinski to move to the wing.

Puck luck

The Rangers’ underlying numbers weren’t drastically worse in January than earlier in the year. In fact, some of their defensive metrics improved. They were 18th in expected goals against on five-on-five rush attempts over the month, which is better than their season rank of 30th. As mentioned earlier, they also led in expected goals most games.

Results didn’t always follow. Laviolette’s philosophy: “Stay with it and be confident.”

“It’s not from a lack of shots on net, or it’s not a lack of opportunity or quality scoring chances. We’ve got to find ways to get it in the back of the net,” Laviolette said coming out of the break. “Usually I find that when shooting percentage is low, that if you stay with it and try to talk about areas where you can be a bit better, you can get out of that and send it in a different direction.”

The Rangers are averaging three goals per game in February. That’s middle-of-the-pack league-wise, but all have been at even strength. If that continues and the power play gets going again, their offensive numbers could be in a good place.

Overall, the All-Star break appears to have been beneficial to the Rangers. “Not only mentally. Physically, too,” Panarin said. Now they have a chance to string even more wins together. Their next three opponents — Calgary, Montreal and the Islanders — are all currently out of playoff position. That gives the Rangers a golden chance to build off some of the positives from early February and fix some of the lingering problems from January.

(Top photo: Daniel Bartel / USA Today)