New York City is a dirty armpit Photo: Getty Images
When the New York Rangers staggered and stumbled on their way to the Conference Finals last year (two seven-game series to get there, and it took the Penguins to dress up Biermann as a goalie to get past them. And a farting Biermann !), it was becoming increasingly difficult to convince anyone that they were all fog and mirrors. As Chris Krieder continued to stack goals and Adam Fox twirled magic tricks off the blue line, no one wanted to hear they were built on a foundation of sand in what was an otherworldly goalkeeping and unsustainable power-play success. The Tampa Bay Lightning pretty much all meet reality the way a cheek meets a curved leather glove and showed the Rangers what they were.
Still, expectations were sky-high this season after Rangers solved one of their biggest problems in free agency and inked Vincent Trocheck as their No. 2 center. That meant Artemi Panarin didn’t have to constantly make the most chicken salad out of the rancidest chicken shit on the second line (although he did, to the tune of a 96 point despite being in power over a third of that game, where he starred with Kreider, Fox and Mika Zibanejad could play). The kids, who Rangers have been betting on for some time, would have another year of experience and sense of accomplishment. There was a queue for the blue shirts.
It didn’t start like that.
While their neighbors the New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders opened their eyes, the Rangers simply staggered from one shoulder to the other. Whenever it looked like they finally got it all together, licked something else or started smoking or made a weird clanking noise. The rock bottom came in early December when Rangers spat out back-to-back games at MSG against the dedicated healing class Senators and Hawks and were blown away by the latter. It left the Rags 11-10-5, with open lengths between them and the playoff berths.
The funny thing was that although their record didn’t show it, Rangers were playing better than they had all of last season, depending on how you look at things like that. They just didn’t see Kreider scoring on a quarter of his shots on the power play.
Prior to December 1, Rangers were fifth in Corsi percentage (52.7) and eleventh in Expected goals percentage at even strength (52.6). Those were better grades than ever before last season. What they couldn’t do was buy a bucket. Prior to December 1, they were ranked 22nd in throwing percentage. Even more poignant for the Rangers was that they were particularly touchy on the power play, where they were 28th in shooting percentage with 10.7 shooting percentages after shooting 16 percent for all last season. And the power play actually created better chances this season as their expected goals were higher than last season.
Something changed because Rangers haven’t lost since then.
They have won seven straight games, including two points against the Knights, Avs, Devils and Leafs. And why? Because Igor Shesterkin has once again become the best goalie in the world. Shesterkin was not bad in October or November, with savings percentages of .912 and .913. But Rangers are built to have Vezina-level goalkeepers behind them. That’s why Fox can get away with looking like he’s found the last supply of Quaaludes in his own end. Shesterkin will clean up the mess.
They got that game from him in December when he averaged .935 and 1.95 goals for the month.
Except that Rangers’ game has gotten worse while staying even in strength. The percentage of expected goals has gone down all season. So has her Corsi percentage. But now the Rangers can’t miss. They are second in the league in December for shot percentage (11.4). They shoot 21 percent on the power play over the past three weeks. Everything runs. If you have players like Panarin or Zibanejad or Kreider, a team will almost always exceed their expected numbers. But that much?
Rangers watchers breathe pretty heavily over their “Boyz II Men” line, they won’t call it a kid line anymore, from Filip Chytil, Kaapo Kakko and Alex Lafreniere. That doesn’t come as a huge shock, as Kakko and Lafreniere were two consecutive top-two picks that would set the stage for Rangers’ turnaround. They haven’t gotten close to that, but their latest piece makes people think a step has been taken. They take every indication that Kakko and Lafreniere are not complete busts.
Uh… not really. Yes, Chytil has six points in seven games. And Kakko six out of nine. The same goes for Lafreniere. Good numbers and they still only measure who won who actually scored. But these kids get their butts kicked almost every shift. None of these guys have readings above 43 percent in December. You spend most of your time defending yourself, which is not what you want. It’s just that on the rare occasions they get into the offensive zone, it’s all in (Rangers are shooting at least 14 percent if one of them is on the ice in December).
But Shesterkin makes everything alright. The power play makes everything OK. And we saw last year how far that can take Rangers. Jacob Trouba can walk around forgetting the game revolves around a puck and just maiming people and it’s fine because Rangers are winning. And we’ve seen Shesterkin pull this off for an entire season. He has to, because substitute Jaro Halák made a mistake.
What makes the Rangers the perfect New York team. Have you ever had a fight with a New Yorker about all the troubles with New York? And they just look at you and say it’s okay because “it’s for the best”. And you have nowhere to go, your logic and reasoning just died in a cruel crash with a wall of stubbornness? These are the rangers. It shouldn’t work, but it is, and it has, so welcome to New York where the local temperature is damned.