Rangers still need to step up even-strength play despite signs of improvements


They are bobbing and weaving at just over NHL .500 over the last 10 weeks while having won exactly half of their games (10-9-1) since Dec. 5 after having taken the last two. You might want to know whether this represents an extended blip or whether the anomaly was the Rangers’ 18-4-1 burst out of the gate?

The answer almost assuredly lies somewhere in the middle.

It was better all-around for the Blueshirts in Tuesday’s 5-2 victory over the Kraken at the Garden than it was in Sunday’s 2-1 triumph over the Caps, which was markedly better than the four straight losses (0-3-1) that preceded that one.

The issues that had cropped up and festered over the season’s second quarter have been less noticeable over the last 120 minutes of hockey. The Rangers have been better with their puck decisions, which in turn has left them less vulnerable to odd-man rushes off turnovers. They have been more alert. Discipline has improved.

Creating sustained pressure in the offensive zone off a persistent forecheck has been a persistent issue. Getting goals from the bottom-six — well, really from the three lines that don’t have Artemi Panarin, Vincent Trocheck and Alexis Lafreniere — has been an issue.

That fits under the umbrella of the Blueshirts’ difficulty at five-on-five, where an average of 48 of the 60 minutes a night are played. “Difficulty” is likely a significant understatement.

Rangers center Vincent Trocheck celebrates with New left wing Artemi Panarin after he scores a goal past Seattle Kraken goaltender Chris Driedger during the first period on Tuesday. Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

Even after outscoring Seattle 3-0 at five-on-five on Tuesday, the Rangers rank 20th in the league in goals-scored percentage at 49.72 while scoring 88 and yielding 89. They are 17th in goals scored per 60:00 and 18th in goals allowed per 60:00.

This, quite frankly, represents the profile of a bubble team scraping to get into the playoffs, not one with Stanley Cup aspirations. Regardless of how potent the power play and how stingy the penalty kill, five-on-five is essentially always determinative. The Rangers have to reverse this.

Yes, until Blake Wheeler got a pair in this one — the second an empty-netter — to break an 11-game drought, the bottom-six has been a black hole of offensive production. Barclay Goodrow, Nick Bonino and Jonny Brodzinski are mired in lengthy droughts while both Jimmy Vesey and Will Cuylle have gone a significant amount of time without scoring.

The reality, though, is that the Blueshirts have essentially been playing with two fourth lines centered by Bonino and Goodrow — and Tuesday, Brodzinski with Goodrow shifting to the wing — since Filip Chytil went down in the second period of the 10th game. It should not be a shock to anyone that the bottom-six has been offensively challenged.

But would it shock you to learn that Mika Zibanejad has scored a five-on-five goal in only four games, getting two once for a total of five goals at five-on-five through the club’s first 43 matches and his 42?

Would it surprise you to hear that while Chris Kreider has scored eight goals at five-on-five, No. 20 has notched only two in the last 15 games and three in the last 21?

Rangers right wing Blake Wheeler celebrates with his teammates after he scores a goal during the second period on Tuesday. Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

So perhaps the brunt of the blame for the club’s failures at five-on-five shouldn’t be heaped onto a compromised bottom-six but instead onto the putative top line whose production is not commensurate with its billing, even now as the second unit.

Zibanejad has gone through stretches like this before. Many times. He always takes a long view of it. Goals are goals, he believes, whether they come at even strength or with the man-advantage. The scoreboard does not discriminate.

“If we are not scoring five-on-five, then we have to do it a different way by producing on the power play,” No. 93 told The Post after one of his most impressive performances of the season in which he constantly created scoring opportunities leading the rush. “It would be one thing if we were minus-50 from not scoring, but we’ve been able to keep the puck out of the net and be plus at five-on-five.”

Indeed, Kreider has been on for 29 goals for and 20 against for a team-leading 59.18 percent. Zibanejad has been on for 26 for and 23 against. The BFFs have been together for 25 goals for and 19 against. That’s a winning number.

Rangers defenseman Braden Schneider moves the puck down ice as Seattle Kraken defenseman Jamie Oleksiak gives chase during the first period on Tuesday. Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

“Five-on-five is important and it is also the hardest way to score,” said Zibanejad, who dished to Kaapo Kakko for a rush goal in the second period before the Swede was denied on a third-period breakaway on a takeaway. “But if we can turn it up maybe a percent or two, our special teams can go a long way. We noticed that in the run to the conference final two years ago.”

The power play, though, can be fickle. The Blueshirts had gone through a 2-for-16 stretch over five games until Trocheck got the 1-0 goal off a brilliant, look-away feed from Panarin at 8:22 of the first period after the club changed its look by moving Zibanejad up to the top and Panarin down low. A more potent five-on-five attack would diminish the burden on PP1.

“I think it evens out,” said No. 93. “We want to find a better balance but we’re still winning games.”

The last two, at least.


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