Who would have thought, just 12 days after starting the season with a pedestrian 3-3-3 record, the New York Rangers would transform their play from lukewarm to red hot.
Indeed, the club holds the longest active win streak in the NHL, and the best "last 10" record in the East with a 7-2-1 mark. The goaltending continues to be solid, but now the forwards are scoring and the defense is, well, adequate. The run has put the club in the 4th spot in the standings, but they really have the 3rd best record in the conference, behind Pittsburgh and Washington. Quite company to be in the presence of, but it has been well earned. It would seem that the Rangers deserve the title of "Hottest Team in the East," but the truth is that we all should have learned an important lesson by now.
You are never as bad as you think you are.
But you are also never as good as you think you are.
So what can we take from the Rangers recent five game hot streak? Are they really that great? Or are they just a good team on a great run? Let's find out.
Anybody can beat the Columbus Blue Jackets, and I am not just talking about NHL teams. I am talking about beer league teams. Blindfolded. The Rangers haven't played the Jackets, but no doubt strength of schedule may have come into play over the last 5 games. Only one club the Rangers faced is over NHL .500 (San Jose) and the combined record of the five is 30-33-10. Hardly impressive. Good teams beat struggling teams, so this is not to say the Rangers are not good. But their greatness over this streak may be overstated.
Now, while the opposition cannot testify to how well the Rangers are playing, there are some telling factors in how the games were won that can paint a clearer picture of what the club has accomplished.
Let's begin with offense. Officially it is 18 goals in 5 games, but subtract one for a shootout win and two empty netters and it leaves the club with 3.00 goals per game. However, three of those goals were on the powerplay, and while it is great to see the special teams succeed, it does not say much for how the Rangers are playing during the general 5 on 5 action that truly defines the game. So while 12 even strength goals in 5 games is good, it won't be enough against high powered offenses like Pittsburgh and Washington, barring spectacular play from the netminders.
Another troubling offensive stat is shots on goal. Although this aspect of the game has much improved since the early parts of the season, they still only averaged 26.5 shots per game over the streak. The club registered 10 or more shots in only four of the last 15 periods, and surprise, 8 of the 15 legitimate goals they scored have come in those frames. The positive part is that if the Rangers manage to shoot more consistently, they will be unstoppable, but as of now, this area of the game needs work.
Ready for the really bad news? Over the course of the season, the 5 goalies beaten by the Rangers during the streak have had a 2.92 goals against average. That means, with 3.00 goals scored, the Rangers offense has been just 0.08 goals above the league average facing these netminders. So much for the offense coming alive, huh?
Special teams has played a big role in the Rangers victories. The club has spent 8 minutes per game with a man (or two) advantage, while being shorthanded for only 4.6 minutes per game during the streak. While this is a positive as far as being disciplined and drawing penalties is concerned, it does not help an argument praising their overall gameplay. Just like penalties killed the club earlier in the years, with both special teams goals, fatigue, and momentum, it is now killing their opposition. Things like penalties usually even out over the season, to some extent. Will the Ranger be able to hold up when the calls stop going their way?
If any part of the game is legitimate, it is the 8 goals against in 5 games that has allowed this team to win, and win easily on all but one night. It is not just on the goaltending either, as the Rangers have surrendered only 27.2 shots per game in the last five contests, which is a major improvement for a club averaging 31.0 shots against on the season. Again, the opposition has not been particularly good on offense, scoring at a 2.53 goals per game clip. But holding any group of 5 teams to 1.60 goals per game is excellent. Goaltending is the strength of this team, and it will need to continue to be just that.
So what have we learned?
The Rangers have played well over the last five games, and as we all know, every win is huge, even in November. The club has improved in many of the areas that have been plaguing it throughout the season. But that said, this is a still a team that is playing an average offensive game, with solid defense and stellar goaltending. This is a good team. They are beating the teams they should beat; you cannot take that accomplishment away from them. But are they truly the hottest team in the East? Are they really up there with the true big guns of the conference?
Not yet at least.
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