A special treat awaits Rangers fans at the ends of their team’s victories, and there have been a lot of victories lately. You see, after New York wins a game, like they did Monday and 27 other times through the season’s rough halfway mark, their two leading goalscorers join together on the ice for a hug.
“A hug,” you’re saying. “Well, I’ve seen hugs before. Hell, I’ve even been a part of them once or twice!” I believe you. Perhaps you are unimpressed by the mere factual description. But over the course of this Rangers season that has so far exceeded any reasonable expectations, I have grown quite enamored with the close friendship between Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad, who have been together now on this franchise for six years. And nothing sums it up better than the forceful embrace they share while basking in the glow of another pair of points. Take a look at last night’s:
And now the win before that:
They’re good buds, and they’re so happy to be playing hockey with each other. And those positive emotions don’t feel rote or routine at all because Kreider, specifically, is currently enjoying a spectacular hot streak in the middle of his best season ever, while the Rangers in general are chasing down their own best year since going the distance with Tampa in the 2015 conference final. And even if some cracks are clearly visible, the places they do excel and their season-long momentum are going to make it tough sledding for anyone who meets them in playoffs.
The headline here is Kreider. (Duh, it’s right at the top of this page.) His league-leading 30 goals on the year not only surpass the more traditional top dogs in that category, like Ovechkin, Matthews, and Draisaitl, but it also obliterates anything he’d done in his decade-long career up to this point. The longest-tenured Ranger has always been a strong and productive guy you could count on for 20 goals a year, but now, in just 43 games, he has 30! That’s a new career high, and it’s January.
The red-and-blue winger also has an eye-popping nine goals in his last six games. Some of the highlights include combing with Mika for a shorthanded goal in a win over San Jose on the 13th, breaking a late tie against Philly on the 15th, and scoring one last night at the very end of the first period, leading to an epic shootout victory over the Kings.
Oh, and he earned a hat trick in a 7-3 comeback beatdown of the Coyotes over the weekend. In each instance, as he’s done many times before, Kreider just hustled himself into an ultra-dangerous area of the ice and didn’t screw up when the puck came to him.
Kreider’s big jump in production at age 30, and his sky-high 21.9 shooting percentage, mark him as an obvious candidate for regression. And that’s partially true—of course he’s not going to be a regular 60-goal scorer—but the improvement can’t all be chalked up to good luck or bad goaltending. For a while, if there was any criticism about the piano-playing, Russian-speaking Massachusetts native, is was that he was perhaps content to quietly be a very good professional without a burning desire for greatness. But under new head coach Gerard Gallant, this most recent year sees Kreider at his most dangerous yet, as even if you ignore how many pucks are going across the red line, specifically his league-high 15 power play goals, Kreider’s 49 high-danger scoring chances in 5-on-5 play far exceed the 30 he had last year in 50 games, and impresses more than the 58 he had in 63 games the year before that. The goals speak for themselves, but the underlying numbers also sketch a player who is more confident and determined to be a top-tier winger on a newfound championship contender.
Also encouraging is that his play hasn’t flagged at any point yet this year. While Zibanejad, in second place among Rangers scorers, has become somewhat infamous for his hot and cold production streaks, Kreider’s been finding the net at all points of the season. Outside of a five-game empty stretch in mid-December, Kreider has yet to go three straight appearances without scoring, and every point he earns is more and more compelling proof that this half-season and counting is no fluke. As Zibanejad put it the other night, “We joke around about him being hot, but he’s been hot for 42 games.”
I’ve been typing a lot of numbers, so here’s Mika after the hat trick to break it up:
“The more you play together with someone, I think you build that kind of chemistry and you understand each other,” Zibanejad, who’s assisted on half of Kreider’s goals this year, said after the win on Monday. “Obviously, being a great friend helps a lot, too. We demand a lot from each other, both on and off the ice.”
The Rangers, as a team, have won 28 games this year, tied for the most in the Eastern Conference, and though Carolina has played five fewer and remains the most impressive squad in the Metro Division, these showings are a giant leap forward for a franchise that hasn’t won in the playoffs since 2017. But aside from the questions about the sustainability of their top scorer, the top-heavy Rangers still have several issues that keep them from being true favorites. This New York squad dares you, the intelligent hockey fan, to ask that most blasphemous of questions: Can good vibes make up for statistical shortcomings? Because these guys certainly have both.
The Rangers have avoided anything worse than a three-game losing streak this year thanks in large part to their young goalie, Igor Shesterkin, who in his second year as the main starter is putting up an astronomical .937 save percentage in a league where the next highest goalie is doing .928. That’s absurd, and as much as I’ve been talking about Kreider, nobody has been more instrumental to this team’s success than Shesterkin, who if he keeps it up might have a pretty strong argument to be the rare goalie who takes home the Hart Trophy.
He can contend for that distinction, however, because his skaters are not particularly good at keeping the puck in the correct third of the ice. The strategy of “make the goalie stand on his head in the playoffs” has certainly worked before, but it’s a nerve-wracking way to carry yourself to wins with a big opportunity for erro… Ahhh look at them! What a hug!
Where was I? Ah, OK, so even with Kreider’s 30, the Rangers are league-average with three goals per game, and near the bottom taking 28.3 shots per game, as the overwhelming star power of that newly constructed Kreider/Zibanejad/Artemi Panarin first line does almost all the work. And on defense, while young stud defenseman Adam Fox has developed into a truly excellent quarterback—he too has been a reliable presence on a bunch of Kreider goals—the Rangers are still leaking the most high-danger chances of any team besides the Flyers.
This means the Rangers are also more vulnerable to injuries than their peers at the top of the standings, because their third and fourth lines are just barren. (Coincidentally, they’re sometimes also Barron, because a guy named Morgan Barron plays for them.) The flashy New York draft picks of the last few years, Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafreniere, have yet to blossom, and the burden of their failure to launch is being felt by the superstars.
This isn’t the Lighting, where it’s barely noticeable when Stamkos or Kucherov goes down. Given how concentrated the Rangers’ talents are in just a handful of guys, just one injury in April could torpedo their whole season. And even if they get lucky with their health, the sheer number of crucial playoff minutes they’ll have to surrender to deeper teams will stretch thei—AWWWWWW!
Forget it. These two are gonna win this damn Lord Stanley’s Cup.