With Ulf Samuelsson calling the shots, Rangers are one of NHL's top penalty-killing units
Goaltenders, Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault is fond of saying, have to be your best penalty-killers, and the tandem of Henrik Lundqvist and Antti Raanta leads the NHL with a 1.60 overall goals-against-average through 15 games.
But the other players on the ice when a team is shorthanded are pretty critical as well.
Under assistant coach Ulf Samuelsson, the former NHL defenseman who has been on Vigneault's staff since 2013, the Blueshirts have vaulted to fifth place in the league in penalty-killing, allowing just six goals in 50 opportunities, an 88 percent success rate, and just 0.9 percent out of second.
"I think the last couple weeks, it's the best I've seen for a long time -- just the timing, the reads they've been making," Lundqvist said after Tuesday night's 6-for-6 performance against Carolina in a 3-0 win. "It gives a lot of confidence to the group, knowing that if you take a penalty, it's not going to cost you every time. When we do take penalties, that group has been outstanding for us. It brings a lot of confidence that you can play on the edge and know the guys will take care of it."
Samuelsson, players say, teaches two forwards and two defensemen to work as a single-minded group of four, when to pressure and when to be patient, depending on a particular opponents' tendencies. Specifically, they are currently prepping for the red-hot Blues (11-3-1) who visit Thursday. A successful kill can change the tenor of a game, especially a close one.
"Their specialty teams gave them momentum (Tuesday)," said Carolina coach Bill Peters.
The heavy-lifters have been two defensemen, with Ryan McDonagh averaging 3:10 per game shorthanded, and Dan Girardi, at 2:53. The next two, ranked by ice time, have been forwards: Jesper Fast (2:29) and Dominic Moore (2:33).
Moore was a healthy scratch Tuesday, but Rick Nash, Derek Stepan, Viktor Stalberg and Jarret Stoll, four of the other regular forwards rotating on the units, adjusted with extra ice time, and Oscar Lindberg, Derek Brassard and even Mats Zuccarello were on for a few shifts. Second-pair blueliners Kevin Klein (averaging 2:22) and Marc Staal (2:15) carried the water as well.
"Now that we're in the thick of the season, you get the same pairings, the forwards and defensemen kind of get the feeling of when everyone is attacking or aggressive, or holding their position," said McDonagh. "So it's just good chemistry there, good communication and everyone being on the same page."
The only downside, so far, is that the Blueshirts are one of a dozen teams without a shorthanded goal, after scoring nine last season. Nash had four, Stepan and Moore two each and Kevin Hayes one.
"The main thing is Ulf giving us a great game plan and as long as we follow it, we'll have success," said Nash, one of the league's top scorers, who began killing penalties in the latter part of the 2013-14 season. "I enjoy playing out there on the kill. It's fun that your team puts trust in you to be out there."