Trade additions have given Rangers new life

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There was no team in the NHL that was better positioned at the trade deadline than the New York Rangers.

They had one of the league’s best records, had impact players at forward, defense, and goalie, with the latter position being manned by the likely Vezina Trophy winner and a major Hart Trophy contender in Igor Shesterkin.

Along with that they also had an enormous amount of salary cap space to address the very real flaws that existed on their roster, specifically relating to their scoring depth and complementary parts.

They did not waste that opportunity, acquiring Frank Vatrano, Andrew Copp, Tyler Motte, and Justin Braun in a series of trades. It has been a completely different team since then, and all for the better.

[NHL Power Rankings: Maple Leafs climbing; Kings struggling]

The biggest concern with the Rangers in the first half of the season is that a significant portion of their success was driven by the play of Shesterkin.

When he started, the Rangers won. When he did not start, they typically lost. And the wins were in large part his doing because the Rangers had some of the worst underlying numbers of any potential playoff team. They gave up a ton of shots, were typically out-chanced, and did not get much of anything from their bottom-six in terms of production.

In the 10 games since the trade deadline they have done a complete 180 in a lot of those areas. Let’s dive into a few key areas here and see the improvements and what they might mean.

They have mostly carried the play since the trade deadline

This is probably the biggest change for the Rangers. Not only have their underlying and possession numbers improved since the new additions were made, they have been among the best in the NHL over the past 10 games.

The table below looks at their performance over the past 30 games, broken down into 10-game stretches, in total shot attempts against (CA), shot attempt share (CF), scoring chances against, scoring chance share, high-danger scoring chances, high-danger scoring chance share, and expected goals (xGF).

Over the past 10 games since the trade deadline additions they have literally been one of the top-four teams in the league in every one of these categories as it relates to suppressing shot attempts, scoring chances, and outchancing their opponents.

Over the 20 games prior to that they ranged from middle of the pack to bottom of the league. Their wins were the result of goaltending, special teams, and their top-line players (Artemi Panarin, Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad) being able to take over games. That sort of recipe can only take you so far. It might get you to the playoffs (and it was certainly doing that for the Rangers), but it will not make you a serious Stanley Cup contender.

Not just dependent on Shesterkin

Before the trade deadline the Rangers had two problems relating to their goalies: If Shesterkin did not have a save percentage of .920, or if he did not play, they had a losing record. In games where his save percentage was below .920, or in games started by Alexandar Georgiev (regardless of his performance), the Rangers’ record was only 14-17-4 prior to the deadline.

What stands out about the Rangers’ post-deadline performance is they are not only winning games and playing better defensively, this is all happening during what might be Shesterkin’s worst stretch of the season. Since the deadline New York’s team all situations save percentage is just .889, a mark that places them 23rd in the league during that stretch. They are still 7-2-1 in those games. No way they were winning games at that rate with that sort of goaltending in the first part of the season.

If the Rangers can maintain their overall play from the past 10 games, and get Shesterkin back on track (and he might be getting there with just one goal against in his past two starts) they would become a very scary team in the East, especially with their top-end talent at forward and with a bonafide No. 1 defender in Adam Fox.

Still a lingering concern or two to worry about

All of the above is great news, but there are two things to keep in mind.

Even with all of their overall improvements they are still not getting any production from their bottom-six. Vatrano and Copp have improved an already strong top-six and made it even more well rounded and dominant. The bottom-six has still been outscored 3-10 since the deadline, while Alexis Lafrenière (perhaps their biggest x-factor right now) has not recorded a single point in seven consecutive games (with only seven shots on goal in those games; including four games with zero shots on goal).

That needs to be better. At some point your third and fourth lines are going to have to contribute some offense, especially in the playoffs and especially if you want to beat teams like Tampa Bay, Carolina, or Florida.

The other thing to keep in mind is that over these past 10 games the Rangers have only played one team that is going to the playoffs: Pittsburgh. The good news: They have played Pittsburgh three times in that stretch and beaten them all three times, including one time rather convincingly (5-1). Two of those games, though, were the Rangers’ worst 5-on-5 games of this stretch and very much did rely on Shesterkin to win (the old recipe), just as they did in the two games prior to the deadline against Carolina and Tampa Bay. They beat those playoff teams, but goaltending largely swung them in their favor. Again, that is fine. But it can only take you so far.

The Rangers play Carolina two more times the rest of the way, including Tuesday night, and it will be interesting to see how they do in those matchups (as well as remaining games against Boston and Washington). Will they be able to control the pace of play better against a top Stanley Cup contender? Or will they go back to needing goaltending to get them through? If the improvement we have seen over the past 10 games is real and shows up against a top team, the Rangers might really be on to something here this season.

[Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick]

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    Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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    COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

    Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

    “It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

    Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

    “That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

    Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

    Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

    Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

    Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

    “We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

    Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

    Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

    Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

    Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

    Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

    STREAKING

    Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

    NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

    UP NEXT

    Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

    Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

    Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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    PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

    T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

    Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

    Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

    Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

    Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

    Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

    The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

    Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

    NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

    UP NEXT

    Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

    Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.

    Penguins prospect Sam Poulin taking leave of absence

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    PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins forward prospect Sam Poulin is taking a leave of absence from the club’s American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

    Penguins general manager Ron Hextall announced on Wednesday that the 21-year-old Poulin, Pittsburgh’s first-round pick in the 2019 draft, is stepping away due to “personal reasons.”

    “The Penguins support Sam’s decision to take time away from hockey to focus on himself,” Hextall said in a release. “As with all of our players, our priority is them as individuals first. We look forward to having him back with the team when he is ready.”

    Hextall said Poulin will return home to Quebec and continue to work out on his own.

    Poulin made his NHL debut in October and had one assist in three games before heading back to the AHL. Poulin had four goals in 13 games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at the time of his decision.

    Nathan MacKinnon sidelined about a month with upper-body injury

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    DENVER — The injury-riddled Colorado Avalanche will be without leading scorer Nathan MacKinnon for about a month after he suffered an upper-body injury in a loss to Philadelphia.

    The team announced the news on social media.

    MacKinnon has eight goals and 26 assists for a team-best 34 points this season for the defending Stanley Cup champions. He joins a long list of banged-up players, including Valeri Nichushkin, Evan Rodrigues, Bowen Byram, Kurtis MacDermid, Josh Manson, Darren Helm and captain Gabriel Landeskog. Forward Artturi Lehkonen also missed the game in Philadelphia.

    The 27-year-old MacKinnon signed an eight-year extension in August. He was coming off a postseason in which he tied for the league lead with 13 goals, helping the Avalanche raise their third Stanley Cup in franchise history.