NY Rangers Trends: The Hot Hand is alive in March

The Rangers have surged in March with some hot shooting and good defense

It was only 27 days ago when Rangers fans were wondering what the team had to do in order to score more goals. When I published my last trends piece they sat 28th in 5v5 shooting percentage and it certainly felt like the Rangers were due for a down shooting year. In true March Madness style, the NY Rangers found their hot hand and have ridden it to an 8-4-1 record thus far for the month.

This is not to say that it’s been only shooting where the Rangers have succeeded in their last 14 games. They are still performing as a better-than-average team when it comes to Expected Goals For % (shot quality). And, in a positive development, have also leveled out towards average in Corsi For % (shot attempts). While they’ve certainly been scoring a lot lately, what has made them dangerous is their top-10 team defense in terms of shots and scoring chances against. How this team is getting its results is now officially a far cry away from the Tortorella and Vigneault years.

While I’ve mentioned previously that the Rangers were underperforming in the standings, the month of March is one part positive regression and one part over-performance. Were the blowout or solid wins against the Flyers, Bruins (3/13), or Devils (3/6) deserved? Of course. I only advise to tread with caution because the NY Rangers Hot Hand only lasts for so long – and let’s just hope the Rangers descent from their shooting peak is soft rather than a complete crash.

Goalie Trends

Before we get to the skaters, let’s quickly look at the goalies. We all experienced the pain of Alex Georgiev’s struggles in the start of the month. His last two starts have been fine to good which was much needed. And while Keith Kinkaid hasn’t been perfect (2 or 3 games were not pretty), he held the fort down while we all waited for Igor Shesterkin to return. Shesterkin will be owed a new contract this offseason, which should be interesting to see how it shakes out. His injury absence completely solidified that he is the Rangers best goaltending option whether or not there is some imaginary clock ticking somewhere.

Forward Trends

Up front, the Rangers best forwards continue to lead the way. As a reminder, Game Control is the sum of Corsi For & Expected Goals For percentage. It gives a rough idea of who is controlling the shot & scoring chances while on the ice (100 = average). The chart is sorted by the difference between their season and last 14 GP, largest to smallest being left to right.

A few players jump out at me. Mika Zibanejad is back to being on the winning side of the puck and very few would disagree with that. He personifies the NY Rangers hot hand right now. Artemi Panarin has come back and made his usual instant impact. Chris Kreider, Kaapo Kakko, Ryan Strome, and Pavel Buchnevich have all turned it up a bit as well. This is all a good sign if the Rangers are to get back into the playoff picture.

On the negative side, the bottom six has been inconsistent. Filip Chytil is clearly still recovering from his injury. However it is more fair to say he’s been just average as opposed to bad, especially when you look at where he was before his injury. About the same can be said about Alexis Lafrenière and Colin Blackwell.

As with all of my writings, Brett Howden should not enter back into the lineup when he is healthy again. Finally, with Vitali Kravtsov joining the fold, the question becomes who comes out? For me, it would start with Brendan Lemieux. He may be very involved in most games, but I would argue very little of it is objectively a positive impact. He, Gauthier, and Phil Di Giuseppe may need to yo-yo in and out of the lineup on the fourth line if Kravtsov does come in and succeed on the third line.

Defense Trends

Out back, the story is somewhat similar as to what was occurring a month ago. Ryan Lindgren & Adam Fox have been a dynamo pair. Since 2/28/21, Lindgren-Fox has run a 68.8% expected goals for rate at 5v5 (via Natural Stat Trick, score & venue adjusted). K’Andre Miller-Jacob Trouba has also been good lately, running a 53.9% in the same time period. These pairs soaking up the minutes they do while succeeding is a huge reason for the March revival. While I still firmly believe Miller-Fox & Lindgren-Trouba should be tried (and it was during practice!) to better match complements, right now it’s all working.

With Jack Johnson & Tony Bitetto out, Libor Hajek has solidified being the 6th man in with Brendan Smith. As the chart shows, Hajek is still a clear rung below the rest of the defense, even with Smith stabilizing him to the best of his aging ability. I would love to see more of Tarmo Reunanen or another Hartford option while the top four are playing the way they are.

The Right Lineup

Unlike a month ago, this writing isn’t being fueled by relatively consistent poor lineup choices. With Howden out and the top four defense covering for Hajek-Smith, the Rangers are simply in a good spot to keep winning – even with the risk of the Hot Hand extinguishing. That being said, I insert the above tweet by George Ays (an OG Rangers stats twitter follow, btw) in the vein of continuous experiment and improvement. George quotes Vince Mercogliano, who is stating that NYR views Julien Gauthier as more of a top 9 winger rather than a fourth line winger.

These roles may have been carved out decades ago when the talent gap between the best player and the worst player was much larger. However they really don’t have a place in the modern game. Simply put, NHL coaches should be trying to identify their 18 best skaters per night and deploying them in an appropriate manner relative to their skills (and who they’re complemented by). The modern game, for coaches, is the ability to roll 4 lines in order to maximize the effectiveness of the top six forwards. Specifically to Gauthier, he can clearly skate and has offensive ability all while being defensively competent (unlike Howden). He helps complete that goal of being able to run all four lines confidently.

Overall it is safe to say that spirits are up among the Ranger fandom. Their actual playoff chances might be as high as the feeling of blowing the Flyers out twice in eight days. But if the Rangers keep putting up decent results with a little more consistent scoring chance creation, we could all be in for a fun April.

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  • Good read. Feeling the part on Gauthier in particular. As a fourth liner, he hits people. He’s got size. He’s decent defensively and has chemistry with Rooney as well. Gauthier gives the 4th line breakaway speed and the potential for quick transitions out of the D-zone. He doesn’t really drop the gloves, but neither does Howden.

    Seeing Morin attacking Lemieux the other night made me think that idiotic Flyer tactics like that are pretty rare now. If Gauthier could throw knuckles a little bit I think it’d help him establish a role. He’s got way more skill than Lemieux or Howden.

  • Excellent column Rob. There’s something to be said about the recent March surge. You are careful not to disparage Quinn in any way which is commendable and you tread lightly on the Howden dilemma. While I agree that Gauthier would be an improvement in the top 9 he should not hinder Kravtsov’s placement there.

    You also verify the weaknesses that has been somewhat obvious in the deployment of players like Howden , Hajek, Lemieux & a lesser extent Smith. All players that are easily replaceable especially with young players coming through the system.

    This team will be a playoff contender but I DO NOT have confidence in this head coach and I believe the players do not either. The team’s recent play is also an indicator of that IMO.

  • The Smitty and Hajek pairing has been steady. While they don’t create tons of offence, you don’t see the team fishing the puck out of the back of their net when they are on the ice either. Remember Hajek is still basically a rookie, I think he been just fine.

    The Ranger organization needs some more depth at center. At the trade deadline I would like to see them package ADA and Howden for a young center prospect.

    Kinkaid has been a better goalie then George. George should be the one the Rangers expose at the draft or move. The club can use his cap space to resign Shesterkin.

    • “… package ADA and Howden for a young center prospect”

      How good a prospect do you think we could get back with a package like that? lol

      Small sample size, you keep Georgie — besides, he’s 7 years younger than Kincaid.

    • As of 3/28 (pregame to WSH) Hajek-Smith have an on-ice save % of 0.940 at 5v5. If they stay paired together that will likely come lower and you’ll be noticing them fishing the puck out of their own net more.

  • Doesn’t how much younger George is then Kinkaid, George can’t stop a puck and is a liability in net.

    • So let’s just forget what he’s done before?

      Using your logic I guess the Flyers should expose Hart and keep Elliot, right? lol

      • The Flyers should expose AV at the draft. This is coach who had no use for players like JT Miller and Michael Delzotto who went on and had productive careers with other teams.

        • I’m sure any bloom on AV from last year has worn off … from this point on he’s probably on the hot seat even if he survives the rest of the season.

        • Del Zotto was delzastrous. A terrible defenseman, whose career has been garbage since leaving the Rangers. He’s literally the definition of a journeyman sixth defenseman. He scored half his points as a Ranger—and has compiled a very feeble 122 points in 398 games with the six other teams he’s played for since being traded. I have little use for J.T. Miller either, he was a playoff washout with the Rangers, scoring only one goal in 40 career playoff games. JT is also a terrible defensive player, which almost counteracts his solid offensive game.

          I don’t like Vigneault much but if he was the driving force behind the Rangers trading Del Zotto for the far better Kevin Klein, then Vigneault deserves some credit.

  • Rob, the game control chart is interesting, and Kakko jumps out at me — even though he gets grief for not scoring, the chart seems to confirm the eye test that he’s done a great job this season driving play. Do they post a chart like this after every game on Evolving Hockey or elsewhere? Thanks.

    • He’s playing just fine, the on-ice goals for (whether he’s getting points or not) will come if he continues.

      I personally make those charts – Game Control is kind of a statistical no-no because I’m summing two percentages, but for the purpose of high-level analysis it works.

      • That’s too bad, I like your chart. I usually do my own mental rundown for each player after the game, would be curious to have compared that to the chart. Thanks for the response.

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