As the New York Rangers lurched and stumbled their way to the conference finals last year (two seven-game series to get there, and needing the Penguins to dress up the beer guy as a goalie to get by them. And a farting beer guy!), it was harder and harder to convince anyone that they were all smoke and mirrors. As Chris Krieder continued to pile up the goals and Adam Fox twirled magic tricks from the blue line, no one wanted to hear they were built on a foundation of sand, which was otherworldly goaltending and unsustainable power play success. The Tampa Bay Lightning are pretty much everyone’s meeting with reality, in the way a cheek meets with a swung leather glove, and showed the Rangers for what they were.
Still, expectations this season were sky-high after the Rangers solved one of their biggest problems in free agency, inking Vincent Trocheck to be their No. 2 center. It meant that Artemi Panarin didn’t have to keep making the most chicken salad out of the most rancid chicken shit on the second line (even though he did so to the tune of 96 points, though over a third of those were on the power play where he could play with Kreider, Fox, and Mika Zibanejad). The kids that the Rangers have been banking on for a while would have another year’s experience as well as a taste of success. It was lining up for the Blueshirts.
It didn’t start that way.
While their neighbors the New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders were opening eyes, the Rangers just kind of lurched from one shoulder of the road to the other. Whenever it looked like they might have things finally together, something else sprung a leak or started smoking or making a weird clanking sound. The nadir came at the beginning of December, when the Rangers coughed up back-to-back games at MSG to the decidedly remedial class Senators and Hawks, getting blown out by the latter. It left the Rags 11-10-5, with open lengths between them and the playoff spots.
The funny thing was that even though their record didn’t show it, the Rangers were playing better than they had all of last season, depending on how you look at such things. They just weren’t seeing Kreider score on a quarter of his shots on the power play.
Before Dec. 1, the Rangers were fifth in Corsi percentage (52.7) and 11th in expected-goals percentage at even strength (52.6). These were better marks than they ever put up last season. What they couldn’t do was buy a bucket. They were 22nd in shooting percentage before Dec. 1. More poignant to the Rangers, they were especially whiff-tastic on the power play, where they were 28th in shooting percentage on the man advantage with a 10.7 shooting percentage after shooting 16 percent for all of last season. And the power play was actually creating better chances this season, as their expected goals were higher than last season’s.
Something flipped, because the Rangers haven’t lost since.
They’ve won seven in a row, including taking two points off the Knights, Avs, Devils, and Leafs. And why? Because Igor Shesterkin turned back into the best goalie in the world. Shesterkin wasn’t bad in October or November, with save percentages of .912 and .913. But the Rangers are built to have Vezina-level goaltending in the back. It’s why Fox can get away with looking like he found the last supply of quaaludes in his own end. Shesterkin will clean up the mess.
They’ve gotten that play from him in December, as he’s putting up a .935 and a 1.95 goals-against average in the month.
Except, the Rangers’ play at even strength has gotten worse. Their expected-goals percentage has trended down all season. So has their Corsi percentage. But now the Rangers can’t miss. They’re second in the league in December in shooting percentage (11.4). They’re shooting 21 percent on the power play the past three weeks. Everything is going in. When you have players like Panarin or Zibanejad or Kreider, a team is almost always going to outperform its expected numbers. But by this much?
Rangers observers are breathing pretty damn heavily over their “Boyz II Men” line, they won’t call them a kid line anymore, of Filip Chytil, Kaapo Kakko, and Alex Lafreniére. It’s not a huge shock why, because Kakko and Lafreniére were back-to-back top-two picks that were supposed to be the bedrock of the Rangers’ turnaround. They didn’t come anywhere close to that, but their recent play has people thinking that a step has been taken. They’ll take any sign that Kakko and Lafreniére aren’t complete busts.
Eh…not really. Yes, Chytil has six points in seven games. And Kakko six in nine. Same for Lafreniére. Good numbers, and they still only measure who won by who actually scored. But these kids are getting their dicks kicked in almost every shift. None of these guys have metrics over 43 percent in December. They spend most of their time defending, which isn’t what you want. It’s just that everything is going in on the rare occasion they get to the offensive zone (the Rangers are shooting at least 14 percent when any of them are on the ice in December).
But Shesterkin makes it all OK. The power play makes it all OK. And we’ve seen how far that can carry the Rangers last year. Jacob Trouba can run around and forget that the game revolves around a puck and simply maim people, and it’s ok because the Rangers are winning. And we’ve seen Shesterkin carry this out for a whole season. He’ll have to, because backup Jaro Halák has been woeful.
Which kind of makes the Rangers the perfect New York team. You ever argue with a New Yorker about all the problems with New York? And they just look at you and say it’s OK because “it’s the best?” And you’ve got nowhere to go, your logic and reasoning just died in a gruesome crash with a wall of stubbornness? That’s the Rangers. It shouldn’t work, but it is, and it has, so welcome to New York where the local temperature is fuck you.