Trial-and-error approach has turned the Rangers' season around

The New York Rangers are the hottest team in the NHL right now, winning their last seven games and beaten championship contenders along the way. (Getty Images)
The New York Rangers are the hottest team in the NHL right now, winning their last seven games while beating championship contenders along the way. (Getty Images)

Igor Shesterkin offered a blunt, unfiltered critique of his own game.

When the New York Rangers slumped to their eighth loss in 12 games on Nov. 28 against their arch-rival New Jersey Devils, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner provided us with one of the best quotes of the season and a candid view into his thought process.

“The goalie played a s*** game again," Shesterkin said. "I feel so bad and play so bad. I'm ashamed."

"Every goal is (an) easy play for me. I have to stop those. If our team wants to win the game, I have to play better."

This wasn’t mere lip service to tide the press over. Shesterkin took his own self-assessment to heart and painted a new story in December. New York is riding a seven-game winning streak and Shesterkin’s return to elite form is the primary reason why. Shesterkin ranks sixth among all goalies with 10.4 goals saved above expected via MoneyPuck and has allowed three goals or fewer in his last six starts, all victories.

“You need a great goaltender in this league and that’s what he’s done for us. He’s had the odd bad game here and there — very, very odd — but he’s our top player,” Rangers head coach Gerald Gallant said on Dec. 11 via Ethan Sears of the New York Post, following a 2-1 victory over the Colorado Avalanche.

Madison Square Garden is an electrifying venue that transcends the realm of sports, and when the Rangers are on a wave, it creates a tremendous advantage. In this goal below, the “IGOR” chants are reverberating through the rink when Filip Chytil deposits the overtime winner against the Devils on Dec. 12. And just look at that pass from Panarin. If Shesterkin is the headliner, Panarin, Mika Zibanejad and Adam Fox are vying for 1B/1C/1D statuses.

Panarin’s slow start, much like Shesterkin's, is broadly reflective of how the Rangers have played as a whole. The 31-year-old has caught fire, recording points in 11 of his last 12 games, while displaying the incredible passing range through traffic that has consistently cemented his place among the NHL’s best playmakers. He’s doing a much better job during the winning streak of navigating space on the rush, finding himself all alone in front of the net, and has bagged goals in consecutive contests against the Blackhawks and Flyers, respectively, as a result. This goal won’t count on the scoresheet but this one is just sick, nasty, stupid and directly secured the victory over the defending champs.

Breadman is sending full loafs home just in time for Christmas and while no one is going to give him a Selke vote, he’s also making some timely plays in his own end.

Gallant is prone to experimenting with his forward lines and though the Rangers are rolling, there isn’t one group that is necessarily rolling over opponents from a possession perspective. Panarin, Alexis Lafrenière and Vincent Trocheck are New York’s most commonly used unit, playing 152 minutes and 45 seconds at 5-on-5 via Natural Stat Trick, and while it has generated a 58.73 Corsi share, the line also has produced a 48 percent share of the expected goals, while being on the ice for 10 goals, and scoring seven. Trial and error has been the name of the game thus far, although Zibanejad, Chris Kreider and Kaapo Kakko are the most common elements of New York’s four most-used combinations, all with relative strengths and weaknesses.

New York’s Kid Line of Kakko, Chytil and Lafrenière caught fire during the team’s run to the Eastern Conference Finals. For a moment, the kids looked like they would elevate the Rangers past the Tampa Bay Lightning, before the juggernaut’s resolve, experience and skill advantage took over. It’s an intriguing line to follow, and it’s a tough one to get a read on. This year, the Kid Line has been on the ice for eight goals for, four against, with a marginal shot advantage against opponents, while primarily being used on offensive zone faceoffs. Kakko has shown that he can be a plus-defender in the league who can drive play at a rate that is far better than his counting stats would indicate — he’s currently ranked 43rd in individual expected goals at 5-on-5, with Trocheck and Zibanejad sitting at 41st and 42nd, respectively. And yet, there’s something maddening about their production levels.

Lafrenière and Kakko were entrusted as the new faces of the franchise when they were taken first overall pick in 2020 and second overall pick in 2019, respectively. They’ve shown flashes of stardom, but they aren’t happening often enough, even if Kakko’s deeper player profile shows the portrait of a two-way menace coming into his own who would benefit from better shooting luck. Lafrenière is sitting at five goals and 16 points in 33 games, while Kakko has notched eight goals and 14 points. Both players haven’t been trusted with meaningful power play minutes. If the Rangers are rolling, and they’re playing their roles, this may be null and void — it’s just that you’d expect more than overqualified role players given their pedigree. We’re higher on Kakko even if Lafrenière’s skill set is prone to dizzying, sporadic highs.

Adam Fox has once again remained as one of the NHL’s best defensemen and it’s getting to the point where he demands more attention, despite playing in a massive media market, while winning the Norris Trophy in 2021. The Athletic’s Shayna Goldman and Dom Luszczyszyn projected Fox’s market rate at $17.1 million per season, while ranking in the 93rd percentile of defensive-defenseman and the 99th percentile of offensive-defensemen. It’s easy to forget that Fox turns 25 in February, he’s just entering his prime and he has to be mentioned among the very best young players in the league, even if he’s far more accomplished than some of his contemporaries.

Fox walks the point with the patience and vision that is unmatched by any player in the league, with the exception of Colorado’s Cale Makar. He’s a terrific playmaker, his ability to anticipate when to join the rush is elite, and he’s doing it so casually. Keep Fox in mind for your Norris ballots again, please.

New York is having fun again and aside from Fox, they’re getting some secondary contributions from the blue line as well. K’Andre Miller scored a spectacular goal against the Flyers and after a slow start to the season, he’s quietly hovering on the border of top-pair caliber.

Shesterkin is once again among the NHL’s best goaltenders, New York’s best players are playing like its best players once again, and secondary contributors are showing a penchant for the spectacular. Take your loved ones to Broadway if you’d like, but the best show in New York this holiday season still resides at Madison Square Garden.

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