Solving the five-on-five issue

Coming off a good weekend with consecutive wins over the Stars and Coyotes on the road, the Rangers are feeling better about themselves. They enter tonight’s match versus the Flyers at MSG with renewed confidence.

Even though he hasn’t been able to match his remarkable play from last season, Igor Shesterkin is 5-0-2 in seven starts. That means he’s largely responsible for the 12 points the Blueshirts currently have. They have yet to post a win or even a point in Jaro Halak’s three starts.

Playing for the third time in four days, it would seem that Gerard Gallant should stick with Shesterkin. He was pretty good against Dallas and Arizona, stopping 48 of 53 shots. The 26-year old Russian netminder has a 2.55 GAA and .913 save percentage. Riding him against the division rival Flyers and old nemesis Boston makes sense. Neither is a back-to-back.

While the play of last year’s Vezina winner has been satisfactory, it’s been the hot start by Artemi Panarin that has provided much of the offense. Buoyed by a three-point game to become just the third Ranger to record three points on a birthday, the just turned 31-year old leads the team in scoring with 16 points (5-11-16).

Half that production has come on the power play. He’s 1-7-8 on the man-advantage and 4-4-8 at even strength. The second line which comprises new center Vincent Trocheck and Alexis Lafreniere playing the off wing have been the team’s best at five-on-five so far. Of his nine points, six have come at even strength for Trocheck. All five of Lafreniere’s points are even strength.

However, that scoring line has also been caught on the ice for several goals against. Astonishingly, Panarin and Trocheck are minus players despite good starts. Lafreniere is even. Attention to detail remains an area that can improve. They aren’t the only players who’ve been guilty of not back checking.

By now, we know how lethal Mika Zibanejad can be on the power play. Possessing a lightning quick one-timer from the left circle, he can get it off at warp speed. Since starting the season with a beautiful shorthanded goal against the Lightning, his other five goals have come on the power play. In fact, eight of a dozen points are via the five-on-four.

While that’s great production, it also means that Zibanejad isn’t getting it done at even strength. With no goals and three assists through 10 games, that’s an area he must pick up. Sidekick Chris Kreider is 2-1-3 at even strength and 1-3-4 on the power play. Kaapo Kakko has scored both his goals at even strength and added a helper. He plays on the little used second power play unit.

If they’re to be successful, the Rangers need more production at five-on-five. Even though they’ve improved due to better face-offs leading to more puck possession, they haven’t been consistent. Over half of their 21 goals at five-on-five have come in wins over the Wild, Ducks and Stars. They totaled 19 goals in the three wins. One goal came during four-on-four and another on a six-on-five situation during a delayed call.

The Blueshirts have converted nine times out of 38 on the power play for 23.7 percent. Half a dozen came in the three victories mentioned above. Mika Zibanejad got the game decider on a five-on-four advantage in the one-goal win over the Coyotes.

Of the seven defensemen who’ve played including third pair sub Libor Hajek, who’s gotten into three games for rookie Zac Jones, it’s been the second pair of K’Andre Miller and Jacob Trouba who have struggled the most. Each have been caught on for 11 goals against at even strength.

A key defensive tandem Gallant relies on for match-ups, both Miller and Trouba have had issues over the first ten games. Miller has been pushed off the puck behind his net and been caught out of position, leading to either goals against or penalties taken. Trouba also has had trouble getting caught on pinches and not being where he should be on several goals.

While that has also been an early issue for Ryan Lindgren and Adam Fox on the top pair, they have been steadier than Miller and Trouba. When there are glaring mistakes from the top four Gallant leans on while limiting five-on-five minutes for his third pair (Jones/Hajek-Schneider), it’s been noticeable.

If there is an area they want to tighten up, it would be the back checking of the forwards. Whether it’s been the second line caught puck watching or flying the zone, or players not coming back in time to help out the defense, those are lapses that can be corrected. Hopefully, they can improve their coverage with the Flyers visiting later followed by the surprising first overall Bruins on Thursday. Discipline will be a key to success.

Of the 21 goals scored at even strength, the bottom six have chipped in half a dozen including one from former Ranger Dryden Hunt. Barclay Goodrow and the still missing Filip Chytil each have scored twice. It’s the latter who’s missed due to his straightforward approach where he can combine his speed and skill with the willingness to work below the dots.

Somewhat curiously, Adam Fox has seven even strength points (2-5-7) while only registering two power play points (assists). But his work on the point is pivotal to the man-advantage. It just so happens that most of the power play goals have involved the forwards with Zibanejad and Panarin leading the way with eight power play points.

The Rangers are tied for 17th in penalty killing. Despite not taking many penalties, they’re 23 for 29 (79.3 percent). They’ve allowed three power play goals each at home and on the road. Zibanejad has the only shorthanded goal getting it back in the first game versus the Lightning.

The power play is ranked 12th due to being contingent on the five-man top unit that features Fox, Panarin, Zibanejad, Trocheck and Kreider. They’ve given up a shorthanded goal.

The second unit isn’t used enough to make a dent. When Chytil returns, does that change? They’ll then have the Kid Line intact with likely Jones and Trouba manning the points. Although the idea of utilizing Vitaly Kravtsov (whenever he’s cleared) would make for a more interesting second unit without Trouba, who should be used primarily for five-on-five and penalty kill.

If you look closely at the current third and fourth lines, only Goodrow and recent Hartfield call-up Julien Gauthier have scored goals. At least Sammy Blais has tallied a couple of helpers recently to provide some offense. There isn’t much offense coming from Jimmy Vesey, Ryan Carpenter and Ryan Reaves. Of the three, Vesey is the most capable. He set up a Fox goal for his one point.

If they’re hoping for help eventually, Will Cuylle is off to a good start with the Wolf Pack. In six contests, he has two goals and two assists. Jonny Brodzinski leads the Pack with six points (2-4-6). Defenseman Matthew Robertson has four assists.

In case you’re already concerned about Halak, first-year pro Dylan Garand has posted a 2.68 GAA and .911 save percentage in three games. Journeyman Louis Domingue is 2.92 and .908 in his three appearances.

The real solution to possibly solving the lack of scoring depth is top prospect Brennan Othmann. The 19-year old former 2021 first round pick was just named OHL Player of the Month. He became the first Flint Firebird to ever receive the honor.

In October, Othmann posted 10 goals with 13 assists totaling 23 points to rank second in OHL scoring. His 10 goals ranked first along with 67 shots on goal. He recently became only the fourth player in Firebirds’ history to record his 150th career point. He set a Flint record in ’21-22 with 50 goals and 97 points. He led them to their first ever appearance in the Western Conference Finals.

Othmann will turn 20 next January 5. He won’t be eligible to play professionally until the Firebirds’ season concludes. He’s a left wing. Given that they’ve managed to play Lafreniere out of position on his off wing, what will be the plan once Othmann arrives? Let’s not worry about it right now.

The Flyers game is a 7 EST start. The Bruins game is 7:30 PM. Another ESPN Plus exclusive. I guess I won’t be able to watch since I don’t subscribe. It could be a radio night. They’ll have Friday and Saturday off before the Red Wings visit for one of those perplexing 5 PM games on football Sunday. At least the Giants are off.

Then, the Islanders visit on Election Day. So, that means the best rivalry will have already completed two of their three games before Thanksgiving. Good job NHL schedule makers. The balanced schedule is a disaster. Calgary and Edmonton have already played twice. They have one left. De-emphasizing rivalries makes no sense. Larry Brooks had a column on it, basically borrowing my six-games per division opponent idea that I’ve suggested repeatedly.

That’s gonna do it for now. Back later.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
This entry was posted in Column and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.