On the heels of the Canadiens’ disappointing loss to the Islanders on Thursday, they come home to host the hottest team in the NHL Saturday, the Rangers. Winners of seven straight, the Rangers have 23 points, two behind the Eastern Conference point leaders, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and the Rangers have two games in hand on the Flyers and three on the Penguins.
After their uncertain, travel-heavy start, in which they didn’t play at home until Oct. 27, they’ve become a good road team, and are now 5-2-2 away from Madison Square Garden.
To some extent, the Blueshirts have benefitted from a favorable schedule in this run. They’ve defeated Ottawa, Carolina, Anaheim, Winnipeg and the Islanders — hardly a Murderer’s Row — in addition to beating the Sharks and Canadiens, who had won four straight when the teams played on Nov. 5. The Senators were playing well when the Rangers beat them as well.
But regardless of the opponent, New York has won these games, which is what a good team does. And they have been playing cohesive hockey.
Team defence may be the most impressive element of the Rangers’ game right now. The forwards are as diligent in their assignments as the defenders, which is not usually what John Tortorella’s clubs have been known to do. New York has allowed only 34 goals this season, fewest in the league. Their average of two goals against per game is second to the Wild, who average 1.95 a game, and have played three more games than New York. They tend to allow a lot of shots, an average of over 31 per game, but not many come from dangerous spots on the ice.
The Rangers got off to a fast 3-0 start against the Habs in New York two weeks ago, aided by some strange officiating. The Habs drew to 3-2 and then 4-3 but an empty netter by Brad Richards finished them off.
So what have the Rangers been doing well this month? For one thing, Brad Richards, with eight points during the streak, has begun to find his groove. He’s got goals in consecutive games and he’s been harder on the puck than he was in the early going. He’s been playing a good part of the time — but not always, as Tortorella regularly juggles his lines — with the Rangers’ two young leaders, captain Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky.
For another, Derek Stepan is emerging as a very good playmaker and developing chemistry as centre for Marian Gaborik (who didn’t click with Richards) and Artem Anisimov (who formerly centred for Callahan and Dubinsky) on the other wing.
All these tops six forwards have been producing during the win streak.
A third factor has been the aggressive play of Sean Avery, who made his season debut in that first game vs. the Habs. He was quiet that night, but he’s back to being the Unsavory Avery everyone loves, or loves to hate. He’s also now has goals in consecutive games. He began the game against the Islanders playing with Richards, perhaps to antagonize the rival Islanders. He did that rather well all night and scored the game’s first goal.
The defence corps, which is surviving the absence of Marc Staal, has grown on the backs of the current top four. Ryan McDonagh you know about; his partner Dan Girardi had become one of the game’s premier shot blockers with 42 so far this season, tied for 14th in the league. He leads the club in ice time, averaging nearly 28 minutes a game.
The second tandem, Michael Sauer and Michael Del Zotto, are a classic combo, one stay-at-home guy (Sauer) and one puck mover (Del Zotto). These four are a combined plus-33 on the season and plus-20 during the winning streak. McDonagh leads the entire club with a plus-9.
Jeff Woywitka, who was a Hab for a minute or so in preseason before being claimed by New York on waivers, has earned a spot on the third tandem with Steve Eminger. Tortorella keeps their minutes low and when Staal returns from his concussion symptoms (he’s just been cleared for light workouts), Woywitka will probably become the seventh defenceman.
Henrik Lundqvist is off to a typically strong start. His average of 2.13 and save percentage of .933 are both in the top third of regular goaltenders and during this streak, he has allowed only nine goals in his five victories. Backup Marty Biron is even better, allowing just two in his two wins, shutting out the Jets.
The Rangers thrive on scoring first. They have gotten the first goal in 10 of their 16 games and have won nine. In the six games in which they’ve allowed the first goal, they’ve lost five.
The power play struggled to start the season for the Rangers and their 13.4 percent success rate ranks them 24th in the league. When a man short, New York fares well, killing 87.7 percent of their penalties.
Tortorella indicated on Thursday that he’d likely stick with the same lineup that beat the Islanders on Tuesday. If that means the lines that finished the game, here they are:
Artem Anisimov-Derek Stepan-Marian Gaborik
Brandon Dubinsky-Brad Richards-Ryan Callahan
Sean Avery-Brian Boyle-Ruslan Fedotenko
Brandon Prust-Erik Christensen-Andre Deveaux
Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi
Michael Del Zotto, Michael Sauer
Jeff Woywitka, Steve Eminger