Quite often NHL coaches break down a season into eight separate ten-game segments to set team goals and to better evaluate the ups and downs of such a long season. With last night's 4-1 home-ice win over the Calgary Flames the Rangers concluded their first ten-game segment of the 2015-16 campaign, and the team finds itself sitting quite nicely atop the standings in the Metropolitan Division with a 6-2-2 record and 14 a possible 20 points.
However head coach Alain Vigneault and his players will tell you that the Rangers have not come close to playing their best hockey to this point; and it could be argued that last week's 4-0 shutout over the San Jose Sharks might be their only real complete 60-minute effort so far this season.
Yet 6-2-2 is nothing to sneeze at, and those 14 points in the bank already are a nice cushion in such a tough division and knowing that there are going to be times the Blueshirts play extremely well and perhaps do not come away with the needed two points down the road. The biggest positive here is that the Rangers have yet to play their best on a consistent basis, both in-game and from game to game, yet the wins keep coming, while the players and coaches do not take for granted that they are fortunate to be in this position through the first ten games.
So what are some of the more important things we've learned through the season's first ten games? Here's the short list:
Henrik Has Met The Challenge
Upon being eliminated by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final last spring Vigneault challenged Henrik Lundqvist to have a better start to the 2015-16 season instead of finding his way as the season moved along. Lundqvist took the challenge to heart and has had a magnificent start this year, posting a 1.96 GAA and .941 save percentage in eight starts--far and away the team's best player. His 4-2-2 record is more a reflection of the Rangers not scoring for him and allowing far too many odd-man scoring opportunities against. This is by far the best Henrik has played to kick off a season in recent memory, and not once have we heard him say "I don't know what it is, I've always been a slow starter" as we have in past years. Lundqvist has been one of NHL's top goalies for the past decade and perhaps the only glitch in his game has been his starts each season. Allow yourself to think the heights Henrik can reach this year by playing this well already. Wow!
Raanta Provides Quality Relief
On the nights Lundqvist has been rested, newcomer Antti Raanta has stepped right in and played superbly, the team not missing a beat by winning both games the Finnish netminder started over the season's first ten games. Raanta has allowed one goal on 45 shots so far, and backstopped a shutout in his Rangers debut last Monday against the Sharks. While that was impressive, perhaps even more so was how he held the Rangers in yesterday's eventual 4-1 win over the Flames while the club tried to find its footing the first half of the match. Outgoing, quick with a smile, and extremely positive, Raanta has the perfect make up to succeed as Henrik's back up and to quickly fit in with his new teammates. He is accustomed to a winning atmosphere after playing two years in Chicago and is proving early on to be the perfect replacement for Cam Talbot who himself had two very solid years in New York serving as the back up goalie.
Lindberg Is The Real Deal
Rookie Oscar Lindberg made the Opening Night roster with a solid training camp, one in which he scored two goals in the pre-season and was named winner of the Lars-Erik Sjoberg Award; but even Vigneault questioned whether or not the young Swede could amp things up when the games began to count for real. Lindberg has answered that question with a resounding affirmative, leading the team with five goals, seven points and a +6 plus/minus rating through ten games. He leads all rookies in goals scored and is just two points shy of the league rookie lead in that category, but perhaps just as impressive is his solid play in his own end of the rink, smart decision making all 200 feet of the ice, and his extremely-high compete level. Lindberg not only made that Opening Night roster, he has already become an integral part of this team.
Spreading The Wealth
The Rangers have scored three or more goals in six of their first ten games--and in five of those games they have scored four or more. They have done this despite the fact that--until recently--the power play has not contributed much and the fact that several of the team's top offensive players have yet to provide much production. Rick Nash, coming off a career-high 42-goal season, has just one goal, and it came on a technicality, not even on a shot on goal. Chris Kreider also only has one goal as does J.T. Miller. Ryan McDonagh (one assist) and Dan Boyle (two assists) have yet to score a goal. But the Rangers have spread the wealth and this balanced attack bodes well for the full 82-game grind and post-season run, especially when Nash et al hit their stride offensively. Lindberg has been a pleasant surprise with his team-leading five goals, and a healthy Mats Zuccarello is right behind him with four. Derek Stepan and Derick Brassard both have three goals; and 19 of the 21 skaters who have dressed for at least one game this season have recorded at least one point. Recent production from the blue line the past three games--goals from defensemen Kevin Klein, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal and Keith Yandle--also helps alleviate some pressure on the top-line forwards. Contributions from up and down the lineup are a must for any winning team, and right now is one of the reasons the Rangers are off to a 6-2-2 start.
AV Is Still Seeking The Right Mix
Vigneault has not been shy about showing his displeasure with the Rangers inconsistent play, and he has been willing to make lineup changes and juggle his line combinations and defense pairs in the early going. Jesper Fast is one of the coach's most trusted forwards, yet he was scratched twice. Jarret Stoll is a two-time veteran Cup winner, and was also a healthy scratch in Montreal. Veteran defenseman Dan Boyle was sat out a game. Long-time defense partners Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi were split up, and wings Mats Zuccarello and Rick Nash were shifted off Derick Brassard's line where the threesome has had some big-time success over the years. Vigneault clearly does not want his team to suffer from any complacency whatsoever, and his actions the first ten games backs that up.