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December 28, 2016 | 3:02pm ET
Defense remains the key to Rangers' success

BY PATRICK KEARNS | TheFourthPeriod.com

NEW YORK, NY -- Learning from one's history is a difficult task because living in the moment is much easier. In sports, it's amplified, because it's such a results-driven business. But teams that fail to learn from their past are doomed to repeat it.

Fortunately, with the season still not half over, there's plenty of time to open those textbooks, unfurl those scrolls and study the past for teams like the New York Rangers, who heading down a path that looks awfully similar.

It probably feels like deja vu for Rangers fans. The team started the season at a torrid pace, rattling off win-after-win. There was a different feel though: a revamped bottom-six, a mandate of skill over (whatever adjective you want to use to describe players that aren't very good but fill a role).

But this new New York Rangers team is a lot like the old and that was very apparent after their 7-2 drubbing at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins -- the same team that exposed the Rangers hollow nature last season -- and a 7-4 defeat against the Minnesota Wild, as the team entered its holiday break.

Some of the numbers -- all of which are at even strength and were obtained through Corsica.Hockey -- are strikingly similar, too.

Through 35 games this year, the Rangers have 1,439 shot attempts for and 1,627 against for a 46.93 shot attempt for percentage. Their shooting percentage this year is 9.69 percent and they have 9.26 save percentage.

Last season, through 35 games, the team had 1,402 shot attempts for and 1,589 against for a 46.87 shot attempts for percentage. That team was shooting at 9.38 percent with a 93.44 save percentage at this point.

The uptick in shooting percentage can probably be attributed to the team averaging 10.44 scoring chances a game, versus 8.06 last year at this point. So maybe the drop won't be as devastatingly precipitous. And yes, there's a chance the save percentage spikes a bit, as Henrik Lundqvist is a career 92.9 even strength save percentage goalie. But he's 34 and to suggest a general 9.26 even strength save percentage isn't too far off.

Obviously, that doesn't tell the whole story, with the team getting more high danger chances, but the Rangers are slightly better at generating attempts and slightly worse at allow attempts against. Boy, this place looks awfully familiar.

This is a team structures that requires support from the defense, it's essential to success. Without it, the Rangers become one-dimensional and easy to hem in their own zone. Without the defense serving as a cog in the breakout, the puck doesn't move through the neutral zone quickly and efficiently. There are no one-on-one foot-race-for-positioning battles for the forwards to win.

"Our identity here is playing defense and our offense coming off that," Rangers captain and defenseman Ryan McDonagh said after the loss to the Penguins.

"The onus is on me and the veteran guys. It doesn't matter if you're a rookie at this point, you’ve played a lot of games and you know what's expected of you and we need everybody to step it up here."

Marc Staal said after the team's comeback win against Ottawa on December 27 that the defensive struggles in the seven periods where they gave 17 goals could be at least partially attributed to how hard they battled.

"It wasn't anything system-wise, we just need to bring our emotional level up and our battle level up," he said. "That just brings your game along with it."

Without a deadly breakout, the Rangers aren't much, which makes defensive play so important. They don't grind teams down with an innate ability to pressure below the circles and keep the puck cycling. Where is the offense going to come from if you really can't do anything well consistently? Flashy scoring dries up and that "puck luck" is a lot more manufactured than you think.

Plus, placing the impetus for victory solely on the shoulders of your goaltender is a recipe for disaster in more ways than one. Yes, the New York Rangers are very injured, but playing tough minutes in your own zone leads to more blocked shots, more hitting and just generally more high danger play. Injuries are a byproduct of not having the puck.

A change has to made on defense and it starts, before any player acquisitions are discussed, with moving Dan Girardi down in the lineup.

Girardi has been a mainstay at the top for what feels like a decade in New York, but he is simply (and generously) a third-pairing defenseman at this point in his career. Every move is secondary to sheltering Girardi.

The good news is the Rangers have never shied away from making an aggressive move. Maybe it comes in January or maybe it comes at the trade deadline. This team is certainly imperfect, but by riding the percentages early, they've positioned themselves with a comfortable cushion to figure what the problem is and address it.

"You're going to have ups and downs throughout the season," Staal said. "We had some stretches there the last couple of games where we weren't very good in our own end and they made us pay.

"But as a group we are still confident in what we're doing out there, we just need to raise our level."

Fans should hope, if there's no move to be made, that the top-level of the New York Rangers as currently constituted is good enough.

Patrick Kearns is a Columnist and the New York Rangers Correspondent for The Fourth Period. Follow him on Twitter.

 
 
 

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