Hartnett: Rangers Have Much Work To Do Before Playoffs Are Realistic

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There’s no question that the 15-12-3 Rangers are playing above expectations in the standings. The Blueshirts are currently five points off the second wild-card spot occupied by the rival Pittsburgh Penguins and are chasing alongside a trio of talented teams in the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning.

Prior to Tuesday’s road meeting against the Los Angeles Kings, coach David Quinn spoke about the goal of making the playoffs. This isn’t new messaging from Quinn. He stated his playoff ambitions in the summer and during training camp.

While there’s nothing wrong with aiming high and building an atmosphere of belief, the Rangers are still a long way from being a legitimate playoff-challenging team. Real playoff teams wouldn’t have any trouble beating an inferior, cellar-dwelling Kings team that had entered Tuesday on a four-game losing skid.

The Rangers failed to get enough offense going and struggled to test opposing netminder Jonathan Quick with enough Grade-A chances. A 2-0 third-period lead allowed the Kings to play stifling, defensive hockey to close out a 3-1 victory. Artemi Panarin’s six-on-four power play goal with 29.7 seconds left in regulation denied Quick’s shutout bid.

Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and defenseman Ryan Lindgren react after a goal by Kings right wing Tyler Toffoli on Dec. 10, 2019, at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Images

Though the Rangers are 6-3-1 over their last 10 games, the underlying numbers are worrying. I think the following chart from Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) paints a clear picture of how the Rangers are faring defensively. It’s not just that the Rangers allow high volumes of shots, they’re also ceding chances in high-danger areas.

Quantity vs quality allowedThe relationship between these two is strong too, though less strong than quantity/quality for.Anyway, PIT allows the fewest shots and the lowest quality in the NHL. The final phase of this dynasty is "defensive powerhouse," apparently. pic.twitter.com/g4mq5y6KbP

— Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) December 10, 2019

Together, the tandem of Henrik Lundqvist and Alexandar Georgiev has combined for a .917 save percentage and a 3.10 goals-against average through 30 games. The Rangers’ goaltending has kept the dam from breaking. If the Rangers continue to allow 35.7 shots against per game (second most in the NHL) while continuing to only generate 28.8 shots for per game (tied for 27th worst in the NHL), they’re going to be in trouble.

That’s why uttering the word “playoffs” and speaking like playoff contention is a real thing can be dangerous for Quinn and the Rangers. Quinn and his staff can see the trends in real time and know they’re getting dominated territorially on a nightly basis.

Even in the Rangers’ 5-0 win over the Vegas Golden Knights on Sunday, Georgiev faced 4.9 expected goals.

The Rangers have high-end skill in Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, Adam Fox, Pavel Buchnevich, Tony DeAngelo and company. They also have a pair of goaltenders who excel at putting out fires in Georgiev and Lundqvist.

High-end skill and superior netminding can only hold up the dam from breaking for so long. Eventually, playing defense this badly without deviation catches up to a team. At some point, the Rangers won’t get an A performance between the pipes or their 10.9 team shooting percentage (tied for fourth best in the NHL) takes a dip.

Playing defense this badly, this often and without any kind of systematic tweaking will eventually burn the Rangers and bury them in the standings.

Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey.