You look around the NHL’s Eastern Conference and see a huge pack of unspectacular teams behind the league-best Lightning, you look at an insanely tight Metropolitan Division where the Rangers are four points from both the top and bottom, you look at Henrik Lundqvist’s resurgence and you wonder this:
Why shouldn’t the Rangers think they have a chance at a playoff run this spring?
Okay, okay, plenty of hands surely are raised right now. We get it. The Blueshirts, 18-12-3 and eight games away from the halfway point, have their share of flaws.
They never seem to go long without some head-scratching coverage issues and turnovers. None of their right-side blue-liners can earnestly be considered a shutdown defenseman at the moment.
Entering Sunday, Lundqvist had faced more “high danger” shots (140) than any goaltender in the league, according to Corsica.hockey. He faced the fourth-most last season (296) and the most in 2015-16 (332.)
The Rangers through Saturday had the fourth-worst Corsi-for percentage (shot-attempts percentage) in the NHL at 46.64, per Corsica. And questions remain about the Rangers’ forward depth.
Despite all of that, the Rangers were 13th in the NHL in fewest goals allowed per game at 2.85. Both of their special-teams units were in the top 10, their sixth-best power play helping their standing among the top-five in goals scored per game at 3.24.
The Rangers have managed a 5-3-1 record without top center Mika Zibanejad, who is scheduled to practice Monday and could return this week from his concussion, which would provide a significant boost to Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich at five-on-five and on the team’s power-play, where Zibanejad has half of his 22 points.
Now, becoming overly reliant on power-play scoring isn’t a formula for success, and they’re not always going to be able to outscore their mistakes. Perhaps their flaws get exposed over a seven-game series. But aside from Tampa Bay, which team in the East is that much better than the Rangers?
Maybe Toronto with its high-end young talent. In-division, maybe Columbus with Sergei Bobrovsky; maybe Pittsburgh if it starts clicking more during the second half; maybe Washington, though remember the Caps have never been to a conference final in the Alex Ovechkin era.
No other team in the Metro, including the Islanders and Devils, is head-and-shoulders above the Rangers, who won’t get many more chances before the Feb. 26 trade deadline to see how they stack up head-to-head against division foes. Only seven of their 30 games remaining before the deadline are division matchups.
The biggest reason GM Jeff Gorton has to not be a seller ahead of the deadline is Lundqvist, whose adjustment to a more aggressive style has buoyed the Blueshirts. He’s been on a stellar run over the last 12 games with a 2.12 goals against average and .936 save percentage.
Really, if you throw out the first two games of the season over which Lundqvist allowed eight goals on 42 shots, he’s been having a really good campaign. Over his last 26 starts, Lundqvist has a 2.47 GAA and .923 save percentage. Ondrej Pavelec’s 85 saves on 89 shots in his last two starts is also a crucial development
For all their imperfections, the Rangers have enough reason to believe when sizing up the East that they can win a playoff round. And once you win one, who knows what can happen.
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