With a Limp PP, the PK is the Blueshirts' Blue Pill

Since Halloween, the Rangers have been, hands down, one of the premier teams in the league. After presumably saving Alain Vigneault’s job with a win over Las Vegas to close October, the Blueshirts have donned a new costume – contender.

In the 22 games since the Vegas tilt, the Rangers have the third-highest point total in the league (33) and trail Nashville and Washington by just one point. For a team with this much talent, a sustained run of success shouldn’t be a surprise, but, for a team with an identity tied to explosive goal scoring, the fact that the defense is driving the winning should be.

Scoring at a 3.5 goals per game clip over that 22-game span means the offense is clicking, but over the same, the Rangers are surrendering just 2.41 goals against per game, pulling them into 10th, at 2.77, overall. While much of that can be attributed to strong goaltending as Henrik Lundqvist has been strong with a heavy workload and Ondrej Pavelec has put in a few stellar performances, it’s the penalty kill that has set the Rangers apart.

Raise your hand if you thought that New York’s penalty kill would be better than its power play this year. Now put it down, liar.

When Jeff Gorton opened the wallet for Kevin Shattenkirk, the thought (to most) was that the power play would be dynamic all season. Of late, the power play has been flaccid and converted just six times in 44 opportunities over the last 16 games (in part because of the injury to Mika Zibanejad). But the penalty kill, surprisingly enough, has been rock solid. In fact, the turnaround began before the standings reflected the improved play. Today marks the two-month anniversary of the penalty kill starting to click in a game against Nashville on October 21st, ten days before Halloween.

Dating back to the contest against the Predators, the much-maligned shorthanded group leads the league, with an 87.3% kill rate. On the season, they’re now tied for fourth at 83.5%, standing in stark contrast to their dead last ranking of 73.3% to start the season.

Every team has flukey stretches, but categorizing the Rangers’ 26-game run that way would be a disservice to the penalty killers’ consistency. This stretch has been no fluke. It has been punctuated by a handful of remarkable performances, including a 4-for-4 effort against Washington on December 8th, the 5-for-5 night against Nashville, and a 10-for-11 run over two games against the Bruins on November 8th and December 16th, but those games are compounding stellar numbers, not driving them. Since October 21st, the Rangers have shut out opposing power plays 16 times and surrendered just one goal in the other ten. If you get the calculator out, it shows that Rangers have gone 26 games without surrendering multiple power play goals. That’s a sign of predictable and dependable consistency.

Pointing to reasons why the penalty kill has so drastically improved is difficult. Of course, improved goaltending has made a difference, but much of that can be attributed to more responsible defensive play. And, in addition to losing PK stalwarts Derek Stepan and Dan Girardi, the Rangers have had to adapt to the nuances of Lindy Ruff’s system which takes time and could account for the sluggish start. But what holds true, as is the case with most every good PK unit, the Rangers have the right players to get the job done.

In general, Vigneault leans on seven penalty killers – four forwards and three defensemen. Since the run began, the top seven killers by SH TOI/GP are:

Ryan McDonagh – 3:03

Marc Staal – 2:57

Kevin Hayes – 2:11

Nick Holden – 2:10

Rick Nash – 2:00

Michael Grabner – 1:51

Jesper Fast – 1:45

Brendan Smith, who averages 1:24 per game on the kill, seems to be the fill-in, despite the fact that the rugged aesthetic of his game should lend itself well to a shorthanded role.

Embed from Getty Images

While the overall usage isn’t particularly unique, Vigneault deserves credit for finding and deploying pairings that work well together. Nash and Hayes are first and second on the team in shorthanded takeaways while Mac and Staal are first and second in blocked shots. Grabner, an aggressive PKer tied for the team lead in shorthanded shots and hits (Nash, Staal), is complemented perfectly by Fast, whose cerebral game minimizes the risk of Grabner’s aggression.

If there’s one concern for the Rangers’ PK unit, it’s the fact that their depth is razor thin. When McDonagh missed four games at the end of the November, the penalty kill was just 9-for-12 (75%). Likewise, the unit was just 14-for-19 (73.7%), in the four games before Fast joined the lineup to begin the year. Of course, you can’t point to their absences as the sole reason for the struggles during those two stretches, but that trend is concerning. As we move towards the deadline, needing defensive depth isn’t a question, but perhaps a veteran PKer would pique Jeff Gorton’s interest. There are some pending UFAs, like Mikael Backlund, Andrew Cogliano, and Colton Sceviour, who could fill the role down the stretch.

Every move the Rangers made in the offseason was geared towards making the Rangers more possession-oriented and bolstering the power play. Shattenkirk and Anthony DeAngelo were targeted explicitly for those reasons. As such, the improved penalty kill seems to have come out of nowhere (maybe Ruff deserves a lot more credit?) while the power play hasn’t seen a notable improvement.

Special teams are key in a playoff run, and while we’re a long way from that point, the Rangers’ penalty kill, through the first quarter of the season, has been integral in righting the ship. With some planning at the deadline, there’s no reason the same won’t hold true in the playoffs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *