The Rangers have been up and down pretty frequently this season, but lately they’ve been up. The team has won 6 of their last 8 games, dating back to January 25th against Buffalo, despite missing Rick Nash for around a month now and Ryan McDonagh since the game against Philadelphia in which he sustained a concussion. Suffice to say the Rangers are persevering, finding ways to win and making a case for themselves as one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference.
As always this is a multifaceted phenomenon, with Lundqvist’s goaltending, JT Miller’s offensive production, and Keith Yandle’s overall form being major factors, but one of the things that’s flown under the radar lately has been the one-two punch of their top centermen, Derick Brassard and Derek Stepan.
Both centers have been producing offensively as of late, with Stepan putting up 3-4-7 in his last 8 games, including two 2-point games, and Brassard logging 4-7-11 points in the same frame. Stepan remains one of the best puck distributors on the team, dishing often from behind the net and subtly finding Dominic Moore for his two on one goal against Pittsburgh, but against Philly the other night we saw that he can still finish with the best of them, finding the net on two occasions and recording his 100th career goal in the process.
Brassard has been equally good on distribution and perhaps a bit flashier, finding the space to set up JT Miller’s goal against Minnesota and scoring a nice wraparound goal to open the scoring against the Flyers the other night. Altogether this kind of production, with two lines clicking from the center out, makes the Rangers a tough team to play against by forcing teams to make difficult choices in terms of defensive coverage.
The underlying numbers reflect this uptick in production as well, indicating what we can all see – that the on-ice process is improving and that Brass and Step are both a part of that improvement. At even strength for example Stepan’s average CF% over the last 8 games is 52.2% and his SCF% is 52.6 with the latter number relative to his teammates being 1.64. This indicates that Stepan is not only a positive possession player lately, but that he’s helping to generate meaningful offense as well.
Brassard’s numbers have been similarly, if not better. At 5 on 5 Brassard has logged an average CF% of 53.1%, an average SCF% of 58.2% and a relative SCF% of 7.4%. It is worth noting however that Brassard’s PDO in all situations over these past 8 games is 109.3, which compared to Stepan’s PDO of 101.3 indicates that perhaps Brassard’s recent form has a little bit more to do with luck than Stepan. Still though, his underlying numbers are good, so even if the goals dry up we can still expect positive things when he’s on the ice.
The two players have even tightened up defensively, adding to their on-ice utility. Over the last 8 games Stepan and Brassard’s CA/60 at even strength are 55.1 and 49.9 respectively. These two numbers are down for each player, with their respective season averages being 56.5 and 56.7 CA/60, indicating that the Rangers are giving up less shot attempts when each of them is on the ice than is typical this season. While a lot of this has to do with the Rangers’ recent turn of form (and how bad they were at giving up shot attempts early on in the season) it’s still nice to see some improvement on the defensive side as well, especially given the kinds of defensive responsibilities centers often have.
All of this is to say that while the Rangers recent run has been fueled by a lot of things, it’s important to note the role their top two centers have played. Both Stepan and Brassard have had their fair share of highlights as of late, with the underlying numbers indicating that this uptick in form for the two of them is no joke. The two have even seen their defensive indicators improve slightly, further gesturing towards how essential they are to the Rangers recent success. Hopefully as the injuries to Rick Nash and Ryan McDonagh heal up and the team continues to face more important divisional matchups they can help take this team to the next level.