After a middling 3-3-3 start to the season, the Rangers are riding a six-game winning streak, their longest since a seven-game stretch in October 2009, and can tie that mark against the Islanders on Tuesday.
Through the first 15 games, the goaltending has been rock-solid (Henrik Lundqvist has six wins and a 2.14 goals-against-average and Martin Biron is 3-0 with a 0.95 GAA) and the penalty-kill is ranked fourth in the NHL with a rate of 88.3 percent.So what has changed in the past six games? A few things.
The Rangers have won five of the six at Madison Square Garden, where they hadn’t hung their skates until Oct. 27, having begun the season with seven road games, including two in Stockholm and four in Western Canada. “It’s good to get into a routine, with regular practices, and being in one place,” said Brad Richards, who had a goal and assist in Friday’s 5-1 defeat of Carolina. “We are creatures of habit, you know.”
Coach John Tortorella pointed to team defense, especially the play of leading scorer Marian Gaborik (nine goals and 15 points) “We have stressed a lot of playing away from the puck,” he said. “We have spent a lot of time, especially in tape work, on team defense; it’s got us some traction. We’ve cut our chances against way down. If any team’s going to be successful, you have to have a foundation of everybody buying in and contributing defensively. We don’t want to turn our top offensive guys into checkers all night long, but they have to be involved. I think that’s helped Gabby’s game tremendously. Look at how well he’s backchecking this year: It’s night and day. You get your top offensive guy backchecking, he has the puck more.”
With that extra control, the Rangers have outscored opponents 22-9 in the six games; they managed just 20 goals in the previous nine. And the production has come from an unexpected source: the blueline, which has been without All-Star Marc Staal, who remains sidelined with post-concussion headaches. Defensemen have scored five goals and added eight assists in the six victories. Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh, with three goals each this season, and Michael Del Zotto, with two, have led the charge.
“We’re being confident out there with the puck,” said Girardi, “We’re making plays, not just throwing it away and panicking. That’s really been helping us the last six.”
The blueliners are “joining not only on the rush, but when we get offensive zone pressure,” said Tortorella. “With Del Zotto, it’s trying to make a statement on what type of game he needs to play. McDonagh just feels good about his game, you could see he wanted to take another step as camp started; he’s trying to be a complete player.” And Girardi, Tortorella said, is “the most underrated defenseman in the league. He does everything. You start with his shot blocking, his positioning, his battles, his hitting, and he probably has been the consistent power play (defenseman) for us this year.”