Steve Zipay is an award-winning journalist who has covered events from Super Bowls to World Series and issues
CHICAGO - In the second year of Alain Vigneault's watch, the Rangers defense is on pace to be the most productive on offense in years.
With 19 games remaining in the regular season, Blueshirts defensemen have produced 33 goals and 80 assists, and that's without Keith Yandle, who had 41 points for the Arizona Coyotes and will play his third game on Sunday against Chicago. And both Ryan McDonagh and Dan Boyle, now healthy, have missed significant time with injuries.
Call it the boost from the blueline.
Last year, the combined numbers of nine defenders who dressed during the season were 31 goals and 99 assists. This season, the Rangers have essentially played with five regular defensemen and a rotating sixth.
In the last two full NHL seasons, under John Tortorella, the Rangers' top eight defensemen produced 29 goals and 110 assists in 2011-12 and 24 goals and 98 assists in 2010-11.
On the Rangers' recent roll, mostly without Henrik Lundqvist in goal, the defensemen have certainly pitched in: 14 goals in the last 17 games. That has particularly helped in the last five games, when Marty St. Louis has gone pointless and Rick Nash has scored just once, an empty-netter.
It's not just the math, the results pass the eyeball test: The Rangers defensemen, instructed to join the rush whenever possible, are creating chances and trying to put pucks on the net. By moving the puck out of the defensive zone with quick, short passes, forwards can force the opponents back, allowing the defensemen room to maneuver beyond the red line.
"We're spending less time in the d-zone and playing more in the offensive zone because we're not dropping back as much to stack the middle as we did in the past," McDonagh said Saturday after practice. "We're moving as a unit. And some of it is confidence."
After hearing the numbers and the opportunity to surpass the points total of previous seasons, McDonagh nodded to his right, where Yandle was sitting, and winked: "Maybe this guy will help us get there."
Yandle could certainly tip the scales.
In the last two games, a 2-1 overtime loss in Detroit and a 4-1 win over Nashville at Madison Square Garden, the Rangers fired 40 shots in each. Their defensemen totaled 16 shots against the Predators and 14 against the Red Wings.
Without a doubt, Kevin Klein's effectiveness in his 10th NHL season has been a huge factor. Klein has nine goals and 17 assists. He had never scored more than four goals in any of his eight seasons with the Predators and his assists already tie a career-high.
Contributions from players such as Klein and the other Rangers defensemen appear to be more critical because scoring by NHL stars is surprisingly low.
Think about this: Entering Saturday's games, the four leading scorers in the NHL had 67 points. There's a possibility that there may not be a 90-point scorer since 1967-68 and the lowest point total for an Art Ross Trophy winner since Bobby Hull produced 84 points in 1961-62.
More teams are deploying four lines, so second and third line players, especially on deep clubs, are getting more ice time and cashing in. Overall scoring per game (5.30 goals) is about the same.
Whatever the explanation, the Rangers d-men are scoring.
Judging from practice, in the second game of a five-game road trip, the Rangers are expected to deploy the same lines and defensive pairings as in the 2-1 overtime loss in Detroit. Cam Talbot will play between the pipes. Tanner Glass and defenseman Matt Hunwick will be healthy scratches . . . The power play was tweaked a little: McDonagh and Yandle (two lefties) were on the point on one unit with Chris Kreider, Stepan and St. Louis. Dan Boyle and Dan Girardi (two righties) were on the point on the other unit with Nash, Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello.Kevin Hayes was the odd-man out . . . The Blackhawks, who will visit the Garden on March 18, are without injured Patrick Kane and Johnny Oduya.Corey Crawford will start in goal . . . The Rangers (85 points in 63 games) went 2-0 against the Blackhawks (83 points in 65 games) last season.