Monday, November 29, 2010

Rangers Record Through 25 Games; Is It For Real?

So the Rangers are now 25 games into their 2010-2011 campaign and the overall record looks very good at 14-10-1 especially considering they have been without their best scorer for half the games, their captain for all but one game, their second leading scorer from last season the whole year and a key defenseman for nine games.  The question for me today is how legit is the record in terms of looking forward and seeing how for real this team is as a playoff or more contender.  There is the only quote from Bill Parcells that you are what your record says you are and for the Rangers right now it says they are the sixth best team in the Eastern Conference, but let’s look deeper to see how likely it is they stay there.

In terms of rankings the team is 13th in goals per game (2.88); 11th in goals against per game (2.64); 16th in power play percentage (16.3%); 18th in penalty killing percentage (82.6%).  The thinking would be that the offense should improve when Gaborik is back up to speed and the additions of Prospal and Drury should also add some to the offense.  The only problem with that is that it also assumes that Dubinsky and Boyle continue their career scoring years, though the hopeful improvement of Frolov should help offset some fall-off.  Defensively having Rozsival back healthy but more importantly a consistent Henrik Lundqvist should improve the GAA to some degree, though it also relies on Martin Biron to play as well as he has when he is in there.  The power-play is an up and down thing which either seems to be really hot or really cold and it does not seem to matter who is on it.  The Rangers penalty kill has been climbing the rankings after a slow start and other than the Tampa Bay game the unit has been on fire of late.  Adding Chris Drury to the PK should only improve things further.

In terms of home and road the Rangers have been a phenomenal road team thus far compiling a stellar 9-4 road record only losing at Tampa, Philly, Colorado and unfortunately the Islanders.  A record like that on the road is more than playoff caliber, it is elite, but can it really be sustained for the entire season.  The other side of the coin is that they have not established a home ice advantage just as they failed to do last year.  As they learned last year .500 at home is not good enough and will cost you positions in the standings as well as possibly even a chance to get in the tournament.  Another positive in their favor is they have done a good job in responding to bad outings or mini-losing streaks and cutting them off losing only more than two straight once this year while having some three game winning streaks.  Those kinds of things if continued are how you can stretch away from the .500 mark without having to go on a huge winning streak.

That is the statistical side of it, but now let us look at the most troubling fact of all in the Rangers early season record other than the home record; whom they have had success against.  Nine of the fourteen wins the Rangers have this season are against the worst seven teams in the league so far this year (Edmonton; NJ twice; Toronto twice; Calgary; Florida; Buffalo twice).  Now the team deserves credit for beating the teams it is supposed to beat and against teams .500 or below they are 9-2-1 which is what a good team is supposed to do.  It also means they are 5-8 against teams over .500 and 3-8 against teams that are currently in the playoffs having only beaten Boston, Chicago and Pittsburgh each one time.  As I said good teams have to beat those they should, but they will also have to be able to beat better competition as well especially if they want to actually do something in the playoffs.

When I think of the teams the Rangers are likely to play in the playoffs, if they get in, because I do not see them finishing in the top 4, they will likely match up with Washington, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Montreal/Boston or maybe Tampa.  Of those the best matchup is probably the Bruins because it will be a slower, more physical game which the Rangers can play.  The Canadiens do not scare me as a club, but they have the attributes of teams that have handed the Rangers their worst performances this season.  The Rangers have struggled against fast, puck moving teams that can expose the defensive issues with speed, move the puck through openings in the defense and prevent the Rangers from being able to set and work their forecheck game.  The games against Colorado, Philadelphia, Tampa, Washington and even the first game against Pittsburgh that Lundqvist stole have exposed the weaknesses of the team against that skill level.

Now following the game against the Penguins tonight the Rangers will have a four game stretch that will afford them the opportunity to increase the gap between them and the .500 mark as they play a pair of home and homes with the Islanders first and then the Ottawa Senators.  If they handle their business in those games and continue feeding on the lower class teams it might not matter how good they are in terms of making the playoffs, but until they start beating the better teams they cannot be considered a threat to do anything if they get in.

My real fear with this team is if they think they can contend or if they start to slide Sather sacrifices the chips he has built in prospects and young players to try and make a run.  As someone who keeps up with the prospects as much as I can but certainly not as in depth as someone like Jess at The Prospect Park is that there is a wide array of very good players down there along with some very good ones already here and to get a big name it is not coming for scraps as so many like to hope.  Sather has been good the last few years in holding onto his chips in trades, I am hoping that trend continues.

So are they for real?  Honestly the jury is still out because they are doing things good teams do like beat the teams they are supposed to beat and win on the road, but they are not beating the better teams enough and not winning at home enough to right now.  We will certainly be watching to see how the signs look over the next stretch of the season.