The New York Rangers are in a zone.
Literally and figuratively.
“For us it’s a question if we can get the puck quicker,” Alain Vigneault said after the Rangers’ 5-0 win over the St. Louis Blues at the Garden on Nov. 1, when asked about playing a zone scheme in the defensive zone. In Vigneault’s first three years a coach of the Rangers, the Blueshirts played a man-to-man system.
“We’re a lot faster in being able to counterattack and use that speed, whether it be deep in our zone or or in that neutral zone. So far there’s no doubt that it’s paid dividends.”
Indeed, following a weekend sweep of Calgary and Edmonton by an aggregate 7-2 score, the Rangers find themselves with a Metropolitan Division-leading 12-4-0 record. Their 24 points are second most in the NHL, behind only the Canadiens’ 27.
The Rangers have scored a NHL-best 65 goals--an average of 4.06 goals per game--and their plus-29 goal differential also leads the league.
Of the Rangers’ 65 goals, five have been scored by defensemen. Dan Girardi has three, while Marc Staal and Nick Holden have one apiece. Rangers blueliners have accounted for 41 of the team’s 174 points accumulated by skaters.
“We’re making plays when they’re there,” Staal said after the win over the Blues. “When they’re not we’re not forcing it. That’s allowing us to be effective.”
Staal stressed the team’s efficiency is not limited to the offensive and neutral zones.
“We’re making confident plays in our own end,” Staal said. “It’s on us to get out of our end zone quickly and create those chances that we’ve been getting.”
An attacking, self-assured defensive corps was not necessarily what many envisioned for the Rangers entering this season. Following a 46-27-9 2015-16 regular season, the Rangers were dispatched by Pittsburgh in five games, creating questions whether this group which has accomplished much in its tenure had seen its Stanley Cup window close.
A rebuild was in order, and a vocal percentage on social media demanded Staal and Girardi be moved, their no-move contracts be damned.
Both remained in place and had four-and-a-half months to recover from previous playoff campaigns and lingering injuries.
“You have injuries, short summers, surgeries, things like that,” Steal said. “It’s tough to build up to the strength you’re accustomed to playing with, so having three or four months before the season to gear up makes a huge difference in your preparation.
“So yeah, it was a big advantage for both of us.”
Along with his goal, Staal has two assists for three points while averaging 19:29 of ice time per game spanning 26.8 shifts. Girardi’s 17:37 of ice time per game is fifth most on the team, as is his 24.8 shifts per game. He has three assists for six points to go along with his three goals, and is averaging .50 points per game.
“I’m so happy for him,” Henrik Lundqvist said after Girardi scored the game-winning goal in the Rangers’ 3-2 Garden win over the Coyotes on Oct. 23. “He’s been working really hard, getting ready for camp, getting ready for the season. Then right away he has to sit out for a few games, that’s never easy but I just love the way he competes out there. When he gets the game-winner like that, it’s all smiles here.”
You can follow Metro’s NHL writer Denis P. Gorman on Twitter at @DenisGorman.