On the surface, the New York Rangers‘ 18-5-1 record paints a happy picture. Despite key players missing time due to injuries and below-expectation starts from some prominent names, the Blueshirts have still managed to rake in 37 of a possible 48 points this season.
However, when you dive deeper, especially into this recent stretch of games against statistically inferior opponents, the Rangers’ defense, or lack thereof, is quite alarming. Head coach Peter Laviolette’s focal point from the get-go was to play each game like a playoff game and stay structured, and early on in the season, the Rangers did just that.
The 1-3-1 trap-style forecheck tormented opponents, and an aggressive approach to protecting their blue line clogged the neutral zone and made it difficult for opposing teams to enter the Rangers’ end cleanly. As the wins kept stacking up, however, the attention paid to the defensive side of the puck started to whither away.
It was almost as if the Rangers decided they were good enough to step on the ice and win every night, and, although they have not really been proven wrong, the defense, and in turn, goaltending, has struggled immensely.
The style of game the team has been playing over the past two weeks will oust them from the postseason, not carry them to the pinnacle of hockey. Laviolette and company need to make those corrections and regain their early season form before the bad habits seep too far into the team’s DNA.
Rangers Surrendering A Boat Load of High Danger Chances
According to Natural Stat Trick, the Rangers rank 15th in high-danger chances allowed (HDCA) at all strengths, right in the middle of the pack. If you narrow that search to include games since Nov. 20, the Rangers drop drastically, allowing the fourth-highest amount of HDCA at 123.
They have yielded 56 HDCA over their last three contests, continuing their downward trend. The eye test matches the analytics in the matter, with the Rangers seemingly leaking chances nightly. Teams are easily transitioning up the ice, creating odd-man rushes, and finding breakaway opportunities.
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Meghan Chayka of STATHLETES, an amazing follow if you love analytics, recently posted a graphic of where teams rank in odd-man rushes against. The Rangers ranked 27th in the NHL, allowing 4.52 per game, as of Dec. 5.
Essentially, the Rangers’ defense has been asleep at the wheel for too long. They need to regain the pride they had in their D-zone structure and limit the chances against them. It has been established the Rangers can win games in any fashion, but the sloppy play will get them in a lot more trouble than is needed.
The Blueshirts are at their best when they limit chances and capitalize on their opponent’s mistakes, and right now, they are relinquishing way too many high-quality chances.
Rangers’ Forwards Have to Help Out the Defense
Defending is not just a job for defensemen. Elite defensive teams are five-man units with connecting parts that react and respond in unison. When a team clicks defensively, puck support can be seen all over the ice, with players covering each other and filling all the gaps.
Right now, the Rangers are getting careless with the puck. The grey area, which is the area right outside and inside the blue line, is a danger zone for turnovers. If they turn a puck over there, the other team almost always has numbers going the other way and can create offense from it.
Countless times over the last three games, the Rangers tried to make a cute play at the opponent’s blue line or tried to fire a pass cross-ice through the neutral zone that was turned over and led to an HDCA the other way (from ‘What’s gone wrong with the Rangers defense and how they aim to fix it,’ The Athletic, 12/8/23). Too many times in the second period do the Blueshirts get caught in a bad change, leading to a breakaway or odd-man rush.
These scenarios keep unfolding like a bad dream, with the Rangers banging their heads against a wall, trying the same play over and over again. If you watch game tape from the early portion of the season, the Rangers trapped the neutral zone and chipped the puck in deep. There were no east-to-west plays at the blue line, just someone carrying the puck in or chipping the puck deep.
With no grey area turnovers, the Rangers were a very hard team to score on. It is no coincidence that as the turnovers have increased, so have the number of chances they yield. And the forwards failing to get the puck deep or backchecking plays a large part in that.
Collectively, the Rangers’ team defense has struggled mightily over the past couple of weeks and primarily over the last three games. They have found ways to continue winning, but the issues are becoming visible and are being exploited by their opponents.
It is paramount that the team uses this three-day break and gets back to the high-caliber defensive style they were playing earlier this season when they take on the Washington Capitals on Saturday (Dec. 9).