Whisper it quietly but the New York Rangers are the latest surprise in the Eastern Conference early in this season; roaring out of the blocks like a silver bullet and leading the Metropolitan Division ahead of the Washington Capitals and the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins; displaying the most potent offense in the NHL right now. New York is the second best team in the NHL (only three points behind Montreal in the President’s trophy stakes) although they have slumped to 5-4-1 in their last ten games after a 10-3-0 start.
Wingers Michael Grabner, Kevin Hayes, and Rick Nash are the sharpshooters while blue-liners Ryan McDonagh and Brady Skjei, along with winger J.T. Miller help create scoring opportunities with their playmaking skills. When a clutch goal is needed Miller, along with wingers Brandon Pirri and Jimmy Vesey have combined to personally win 8 games out of New York’s 16 wins thus far.
Vesey is a key addition to the Rangers: winner of the Hobey Baker Award (given to the best NCAA college hockey player) Jimmy was the hottest commodity in the NHL free agent market with seven teams bidding for his services with the Rangers winning the bidding. Vesey is a fourth liner, paired with Josh Jooris and Matt Puempel, but he is a key part of the Rangers power-play offense, leading the Rangers in power-play goals with four to his credit thus far.
Although the Rangers overall defense does not rank among the top ten in the NHL New York is getting solid disciplined two-way effort from Grabner, Hayes, Miller, and McDonagh as well as Nick Holden, Jesper Fast, and Dan Girardi; their combined efforts along with a top-ten penalty-killing unit; and the fact that New York is next to last in the NHL in terms of team penalty minutes helps to compensate for a rather average season from their redoubtable goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. Lundqvist presently ranks among the middle in terms of GAA and Save Percentage and with only one shutout to his credit.
If one Rangers player can be singled out it is team captain Ryan McDonagh. McDonagh has become the work horse for the franchise: leading all skaters in ice-time, working hard on the power-play and the penalty-kill. He is entering his prime of his career and is that vital catalytic presence every potential playoff contender needs to go all the way.
The Rangers fast start is a continuation of head coach Alain Vigneault’s solid performance in guiding the team since his arrival is 2013. The Rangers are on a pace where they can reach triple digits in team points for the third straight year (the last time that happened to the Rangers was in 1972/73). Throughout his illustrious career Vigneault has led his teams to two Stanley Cup finals appearances (once with Vancouver in 2010/11 and the other with New York in 2013/14). He has done everything a great NHL head coach can do except win the Stanley Cup. Is this the year he finally does it?
The season is still young and one wonders whether the Rangers have the reserves left in the tank to withstand the long season and remain healthy come playoff time five months from now? So much can change in the span of five months but the Rangers are in a better position than other teams that were more favored than the Rangers were and they like where they are at.