However, after a little more than one-tenth of the way through the year, it’s the New York Rangers that are the most dynamic, dangerous team of the three.
The Rangers stumbled out of the gate, losing their first two games of the season. But in the seven games that followed, the Blueshirts won six times (6-1-0), and after Sunday’s win on the road against Seattle in their first of four straight road games, they’ve won two in a row.
Most impressively, the Rangers are not leaning on their offensive stars to lead the way, instead, they’re winning through defense. Unlike some teams, the Blueshirts have just one player (star defenseman Adam Fox) averaging at least one point-per-game, and they have only four players averaging more than a .50 point-per-game pace. They obviously need someone to put up points, but look at how the Rangers have won this season, and it should be clear: their defense is the engine that drives them. In their six wins, they’ve allowed more than one goal per game just one time – a 3-2 win for them over Ottawa. In every other game, they’ve allowed one goal or fewer.
That’s in part a complement to goalie Igor Shesterkin, the third-year NHLer who has underscored his claim on the Rangers’ starter’s job with superb play this season. The 25-year-old Russian has a 1.70 goals-against average, a .947 save percentage, and a 5-1-1 record. But Shesterkin has benefitted from a calm-but-determined, Gerard-Gallant-coached squad in front of him, and the Rangers’ defense corps has size and smarts that also are a factor in the team’s current success. If it’s right to praise him (and it is), it’s also fair to spread that praise around.
It’s the Rangers’ all-around degree of talent that made them a playoff team, at least, in my pre-season predictions for THN. The Metropolitan Division is the strongest in the league, so there will be little room for letdown for the Rangers as the season unfurls. But they’ve also got a bunch of young players brimming with energy that should fuel them right through their 82nd game of the year and beyond; Fox and D-man Ryan Lindgren are 23, blueliner K’Andre Miller and forwards Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafrenière are 21. There’s a very good core here, and one whose best days are ahead.
In the Glen Sather Era in Manhattan, huge sums of money were thrown at players, and that constant churn and burn wore at the Rangers’ center during that time. This time around, though, the organization has bitten its bottom lip, stomached out a few lean years, and come out of it with franchise cornerstones on defense, at forward, and in goal. Patience remains a virtue, as the Rangers will have to outpace one of Pittsburgh, Washington, the Isles, Carolina and Philadelphia – all five of who have more experience than the Blueshirts – to earn a playoff berth.
But, unlike in the Sather years, there is honest-to-goodness light at the end of the tunnel for the Rangers. There are no quick fixes, no substitute for learning and growing into a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. GM Chris Drury has quickly put his stamp on the roster, and the results thus far are impressive.
It’s tough to envision a team that operates out of a giant city like New York City as an underdog. They have the support of millions of fans, and that creates the image of Goliath, not David. But a correct appraisal of the Rangers has to include the fact that, for the first time in a long time, they’ve tried to build a Cup frontrunner through honest efforts. Yes, they’ve also made key free-agent signings such as Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba, but they wouldn’t have nearly as huge an impact if the Rangers hadn’t acquired gems such as Fox, Lafreniere and Kakko to be the foundation for the future.
The Rangers have the chance this season to evolve into a serious championship threat. Nobody will give them credit until they play at their current pace over a full season. But as we’re seeing, they’re focused on, and capable of, earning that credit.