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Analysis: Rangers must improve puck possession

by Dan Rosen / NHL.com

GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- Henrik Lundqvist and a cushion in the Metropolitan Division standings are the two things the New York Rangers have going for them entering December.

Each is a positive, but they can't act as a deterrent for the ongoing defensive-zone breakdowns and puck-possession issues that have been persistent in the Rangers' overall game since the start of the season.

Lundqvist has enabled them to mask those issues and post a 17-6-2 record through 25 games. The longer they persist, the more likely they become a bigger problem that will affect the Rangers' cushion in the division, which is six points between them and the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders.

It was 11 points before the problems caught up to the Rangers in a three-game losing streak that unlocked their hold on first place until they defeated the Carolina Hurricanes on Monday.

The Rangers are expected to be tested again Wednesday against the Islanders at Barclays Center (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVA Sports).

"When you do give up a lot of scoring chances, you run the risk of making mistakes," Lundqvist said. "When you cut it down, it's easier to be sharp on every one, but that's the tricky part when you see a lot of shots and a lot of scoring chances. But I think we all know what we need to do here to improve our game. We're getting there."

They need to hurry up, because the odds of the Rangers continuing to score nearly three goals per game (2.92) while averaging fewer than 28 shots per game (27.7) are slim.

Five teams in the past five seasons have scored at least 2.80 goals per game averaging fewer than 28 shots per game. Two of those teams made the Stanley Cup Playoffs: the Nashville Predators in 2011-12, and the Calgary Flames in 2014-15.

Similarly, the odds are slim that the Rangers will continue to allow a shade over two goals per game (2.08, best in the NHL) despite routinely being outshot and outpossessed (by the shot-attempts percentage metric) because of consistent turnovers or bad breakouts.

The Rangers entered play Tuesday ranked 28th in the NHL in shots against per game (31.8), 29th in SAT percentage (45.32), and last in scoring-chance differential (minus-105, according to war-on-ice.com).

Lundqvist is exceptional, but there's even a limit to what he can take. He's allowed 12 goals in his past three starts, although maybe a quarter of them can actually be blamed on him. The rest were on defensive breakdowns and turnovers that led to Grade A scoring chances against.

"We all feel that we together can cut down scoring chances against," Lundqvist said. "Every time you're around 20 scoring chances against you're playing with fire a little bit."

Coach Alain Vigneault is confident the Rangers can start to limit the scoring chances against as long as they start taking care of the puck better.

"You look at our team right now and the scoring chances we're giving the opposition, a good percentage of them are self-inflicted, sometimes with not a lot of pressure around," Vigneault said.  "I'm very, very confident that we can deal with that and fix that."

It'll be harder to fix because of some key injuries.

The Rangers were mostly healthy for the first quarter of the season (four man games lost to injury), but in the past three games they lost center Derek Stepan for 4-6 weeks with broken ribs and defenseman Kevin Klein for 2-3 weeks with a strained oblique muscle.

Stepan was centering the No. 2 line. Klein was elevated to the top defense pair Monday before he was injured.

"We've been winning a good amount of games, but at the same time the last week to 10 days I think we all feel like we can improve," Lundqvist said. "We have to."

If the Rangers are going to improve enough to reverse the negative trends, the following four players must be better, starting Wednesday against the Islanders:

Chris Kreider and Kevin Hayes

Kreider and Hayes are supposed to be a dynamic depth-forward duo for the Rangers behind Derick Brassard, Rick Nash, Mats Zuccarello and Stepan. They've been inconsequential in too many games, which is contributing to the Rangers' dragging possession and scoring-chance numbers.

"I do believe there is more there," Vigneault said.

Prior to training camp, Vigneault targeted Kreider as a potential 30-goal scorer this season after he had an NHL career-best 21 last season. He has four goals, including two on shots the goalies probably want back.

Kreider had a shot from 35 feet out trickle through Arizona Coyotes goalie Mike Smith's legs on Nov. 7. Smith was pulled after allowing that goal. In addition, Kreider somehow scored on Carolina goalie Cam Ward with what appeared to be a harmless shot out of the corner Monday.

Chris Kreider
Left Wing - NYR
GOALS: 4 | ASST: 7 | PTS: 11
SOG: 52 | +/-: 6
Hayes has been tested as a right wing with Kreider and Stepan and as the second-line center in Stepan's absence, but he has mostly been New York's third-line center this season. He hasn't delivered a consistent performance in any of the spots.

Part of the problem is neither Kreider nor Hayes are shooting the puck enough or using their big bodies to win puck battles and get to the net. Hayes is 6-foot-5, 227 pounds. Kreider is 6-3, 226. They are the definition of power forwards, but too often they've been on the outside.

"Both those two players have big bodies, so put the puck in an area where you can have a battle, and if there is a battle, with their strength and physical attributes they can come up with the puck," Vigneault said. "Then they've gotta make some plays, but they're both skilled enough and smart enough to make those plays."

Vigneault hasn't stopped believing they can be major contributors.

"I've got so much faith and belief in the potential in those guys," he said. "I think I'm right in assuming they can be impact players in this League."

Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi

They have been the Rangers' top defense pair for the majority of the season, but they've also been the guiltiest of New York's defensemen mishandling the puck.

McDonagh has committed what Vigneault referred to as uncharacteristic turnovers in recent games, particularly on breakouts. McDonagh seems caught in between trying for the stretch pass and trying for the short pass, so he's putting the puck into the middle of the opposing forecheck.

In addition, his indecision reading plays has made him vulnerable to letting forwards get behind him, like Hurricanes forward Chris Terry did for his breakaway goal Monday.

Girardi has been a total drain on the Rangers' possession to the point where his 38.74 SAT percentage is better than four players in the League who have played at least 20 games. It's worse for Girardi because he's relied on to play more than 20 minutes per game.

He was demoted to the third defense pair for the start of the game Monday, but he finished with season-highs for shifts (40) and minutes (27:43) because New York was down to five defensemen, two righties, after Klein left with his injury in the first period.

The problem is, Girardi finished the game with a minus-26 shot-attempts against differential (5-on-5), according to war-on-ice.com. The Rangers were minus-28.

"For me, when I talk to him about it and show him different things, it's more about the gap; he could have a better gap with the opposition," Vigneault said. "And it's the decisions with the puck."

The decisions have to improve. If they do, the Rangers' overall game will improve and they'll start looking like a team that can sustain the success they've been having, instead of one dependent on its goalie to bail it out.

"We've talked enough. We've shown a lot of video," Vigneault said. "The players are very aware individually on where their game needs to improve and how they can get it to where we want it to be and they want it to be. I think the mindset right now is back to where it needs to be and we're going to have a good opportunity [Wednesday] to prove it against a divisional rival."

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