Jimmy Vesey #26 of the Rangers celebrates his third period goal...

Jimmy Vesey #26 of the Rangers celebrates his third period goal against the Detroit Red Wings with teammates Vincent Trocheck #16 and Braden Schneider #4 at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023. Credit: Jim McIsaac

 NASHVILLE

One of the more famous things former Giants coach Bill Parcells said was, “You are what your record says you are.’’

 For the Rangers, what their record said they were at the quarter-mark of the current season was "the best team in the NHL.''

 But are they really? Can this team, which doesn’t have Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews on its roster and which hasn’t changed all that much from the group that got bounced by the Devils in the first round of the playoffs last spring, really be the best in the league?

 “I think it's no surprise,’’ center Mika Zibanejad said. “I think we felt, in the group, that we have something here.

 “We have pretty much the same group [as last season]. We have some additions that came in and really made an impact not just on the ice but in the locker room as well. And I think we have a good group of guys in here, and great hockey players. And just in general, I think we've been jelling.’’

They’ve been jelling, all right. The Rangers were the first team in the league to get to 15 wins, and through 22 games, they are 17-4-1 (35 points), on pace for a 63-win, 130-point season.

 The Rangers, who emerged from their five-year rebuild two seasons ago, are a veteran group now, led by familiar names such as Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, Artemi Panarin — who is among the league leaders in scoring — Adam Fox and goaltender Igor Shesterkin. They’ve added a couple of key pieces, picked up for bargain prices in free agency over the summer, in defenseman Erik Gustafsson, goalie Jonathan Quick and forwards Nick Bonino and Tyler Pitlick, who have made big contributions. But clearly, the biggest addition has been coach Peter Laviolette.

 Laviolette has been an instant hit with the players, having brought a fresh attitude toward practices, which are intense, competitive and always different. The players seem to enjoy that, and they also seem to like the fact that Laviolette hasn’t changed his line combinations often. But what they enjoy the most is the comfort of having a clearly defined structure to the way the team plays. That’s something they didn’t have as much under his predecessor, Gerard Gallant.

 “I think, in general, that when you  get to such a, I would say, clear system, and something that just keeps on getting talked about and worked on . . .  it's obviously worked for us now,’’ Zibanejad said. “Because when we're not at our best, we still have something to kind of lean back on. Trusting what we're doing, trusting our system and trying to work out of [problems] instead of trying to make something happen every time you have the puck . . .  You become a little bit more predictable to your teammate, and I think that that helps.’’

Laviolette didn’t want to make a big deal about how well the Rangers  performed in the first quarter. He’s focused on the bigger picture.

 “We haven't marked it as a quarter-pole milestone,’’ he said. “This is what we were hoping for. This is what we wanted. [But] we’re talking more just about the game and what we need to do to be successful.’’

Vesey makes his mark

Forward Jimmy Vesey went from being left out of the opening night lineup to being added to the second power-play group for Wednesday’s game against the Detroit Red Wings and scoring the winning goal in the Rangers' 3-2 victory. It was his fifth goal of the season and his fourth in the last seven games. Two of those four have been game-winning goals.

 Vesey’s recent surge has turned the fourth line — himself, Barclay Goodrow and Tyler Pitlick — into a force for the Rangers, a group that is playing so well that Laviolette can match them up against other teams’ top lines. It's one he can put on the ice in late-game situations, including games in which the Rangers are trying to protect a slim lead.

"I think at the beginning of the year it was we were taking mostly these ‘D’ zone draws, we'll say,’’ Vesey said. “But as the year's gone on, I think we've played better, we've developed chemistry, and now we're going out with the ‘O’ zone draws against any of the other team's lines. So we're starting to become a 200-foot line.’’

 And along the way, Vesey — who has 25 game-winners among his 88 career NHL goals — has made himself indispensable, Laviolette said.

 “I said at the time [when Vesey was an early-season healthy scratch], he didn't deserve to be scratched,’’ Laviolette said. “He's a player that we count on and depend on for a lot of different things. Right now, he seems to be in a little bit of a groove as well. He's playing really well . . .  He's worked hard and got himself back in to the point where now he can't come out of the lineup.’’

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