The Rangers wrapped up the regular season on Saturday night in Montreal, picking up a point in an overtime loss to push their season total to 96. Afterward, Henrik Lundqvist reflected on how far this team has come since October.
“It was a rollercoaster of a season with the start we had, but we regrouped and we’re in [the playoffs] so that’s exciting,” he said. “We should all be proud of how we played, especially the second half of the season, to turn things around.”
Lundqvist is absolutely right – the Rangers should pat themselves on the back. After losing six of their first eight games and generally enduring a woeful first half, they rebounded to win 45 games by the time it was all said and done – their third highest wins total in the past 20 years. Though their second-place finish in the Metropolitan Division is somewhat tainted by comparison, it is fully redeemed by circumstance.
On December 21st, the Rangers were in sixth place in the Metro with a record of 16-18-2. They would go 29-13-4 over their next 46 games to haul themselves up four spots in the standings and into the playoffs. They may have been racing within a weak field, but the cachet that’s lost in looking at their divisional brethren is regained in sizing up the hole they climbed out of.
Now the Blueshirts head to the playoffs riding a three-month long surge of momentum. But before we look ahead at what awaits, let’s look back at what got them here.
Patience is a virtue, right? If there were any Rangers fans that rejected that notion back in October (and there were), there certainly aren’t any now. Under new head coach Alain Vigneault, the Blueshirts were a mess the first few weeks of the season, losing often and losing big. Watching the team adopt a new system while running from one Western Conference stronghold to the next was like watching someone learn how to fly a plane while under attack from a fleet of fighter jets.
Baptism by fire, to say the least.
But as the critics called for Vigneault’s head, the team stayed the course. Instead of falling back on what they knew well, scared by early-season catastrophes, the Rangers pushed boldly into new territory, trusting Vigneault to lead them in the right direction. There’s something to be said for their staunch belief in the new system, especially after being utterly embarrassed to start the season. It’s a lot easier to embrace change, after all, when the immediate results don’t make you want to crawl inside a hole and hide.
Where the Rangers once sounded hopeful about Vigneault’s style of play, they now sound confident. Where they once looked tentative on the ice, they now look self-assured. They believe that if they play their game, the results will take care of themselves, evidence of a team that trusts its system. (And one that can make some noise in the playoffs.)
In the recent past, this subtitle would probably be labeled “Henrik Lundqvist” – and for a moment, it was. That’s how good Lundqvist has been in the second half of the season, and especially down the stretch. After struggling mightily through the first three months of the year, Lundqvist did a complete “180” from January onward, finding the form that earned him the Vezina trophy in 2012.
Beginning with a 3-2 win over Chicago on January 8, Hank was 21-8-2, with a 1.87 GAA and .937 SV%. In his final 11 games, with the team in desperate need of wins, he went 8-2-1 with a 1.81 GAA and .939 SV%. Thanks to this sterling run of play, it’s easy to forget the work that Cam Talbot did when the season was young.
But what a crime that would be. Talbot – or “Goalbuster” as he has come to be known – was a revelation in goal for the Rangers this season, a golden discovery the team never saw coming. When Lundqvist was struggling early on, Talbot was the buoy that kept the season afloat. Called upon often in October, November and December, the 26-year-old rookie took the NHL by storm, winning eight of his first ten starts while allowing more than two goals just once.
His reliability in net afforded Lundqvist the time to find his game, a luxury Martin Biron could not provide early on. Perhaps Hank would have figured things out regardless, but Talbot, who finished the season 12-6-1 with a 1.64 GAA and .941 SV%, played well enough to render that fact irrelevant. He was worth more than the time he bought the King.
How ‘bout that! Special teams actually propelled the Blueshirts this season, instead of holding them back. At first glance, the numbers seem to tell a familiar story: a great penalty kill and a not-so-great power play. The Rangers finished the season fourth in penalty kill percentage (85.3%) and 14th in power play percentage (18.2%).
But anyone who watched this team over the course of the season won’t fall into that narrative trap. For much of the year, the Rangers were one of the best special-teams squads (that syntax always gets messy) in the NHL, powered by a stifling penalty kill and a dynamic power play. Until March, you could find both units within the league’s top-10, a distinction the Blueshirts shared with only a couple other teams.
The power play struggled down the stretch, but that doesn’t erase all that it achieved over the first five months of the season. Under the guidance of assistant coach Scott Arniel, the brains behind the 1-3-1 formation, the extra-man unit moved the puck fluidly and creatively, giving the Rangers a boost in an area they’d long come to expect a letdown. Fewer power-play hairs were pulled out among Rangers fans this season than ever before during the John Tortorella era.
All season long, the Rangers have been a dominant team in terms of puck possession and shot differential. Even as they stumbled through the first half, they had the look of a team that was due to start winning games in bunches for their peripherals told a much more promising story than their record. (On the flip side, consider the Toronto Maple Leafs.)
And once the numbers had time to take effect, the results matched the implications. Now, by any measure, from something as transparent as their record to something as hazy as Fenwick Close, the Rangers are a good team. Score that a win for advanced statistics.
Fenwick, a proxy for puck possession, measures the total number of shots directed at goal by each team over the course of a game, whether or not they reach the net. With a 52.8% advantage over the opposition, the Rangers finished fifth in the NHL, behind only the Sharks, Kings, Blackhawks and Blues. In terms of raw shot differential, the Blueshirts were one of only three teams to finish with more than 33 shots per game and less than 30 shots against.
Had it not been for a drastically low shooting percentage, it stands to reason the Rangers would have finished a front-runner for the Presidents Trophy. Instead, they’ll set their sights on the Cup.
Perhaps that grueling nine-game road trip to start the season was a blessing in disguise. Though the Rangers were knocked down a peg or two, they came away better for it. By the end of the season, few teams were better at playing away from home than the Blueshirts, who finished with the most road wins (25) in the Eastern Conference.
Their dominance on the road is hard to explain. Over and over this season, Vigneault and his players stressed that they play no different on the road than at home. As A.V. says, there’s no home way to play versus an away way, only a right way versus a wrong way. Either way, the Rangers have to like what it says about their character, their toughness.
To win it all, you have to be comfortable away from home.