By Sean Hartnett
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Ten games into the regular season, the Rangers are the most prolific scoring team in the NHL.
Lightning fast on attack, crisp with their puck movement and fleet-footed while defending, the Blueshirts are constantly putting the opposition under pressure, gaining a strong edge in offensive zone time and leading the league in scoring, averaging an even four goals per game.
Their plus-18 goal differential is also a league high and is the best goal differential through 10 games in franchise history. No team has earned more takeaways than the Rangers’ 102 and their 12.7 shooting percentage also leads the NHL.
Central to the cause is minute-devouring defenseman Ryan McDonagh. Known to teammates as “Mac Truck” and “Trucker,” the 27-year-old captain of the Blueshirts has logged a team-high 24:15 of ice time per game. McDonagh leads the Blueshirts with 3:50 of power play time per game and his 2:11 shorthanded time per trails only alternate captain Marc Staal.
McDonagh has been key to sparking counter attacks by efficiently moving the puck out of the Rangers’ end. As a result, the 6-foot-1 defenseman has nine assists, which is best among NHL defensemen. McDonagh is the first Rangers blue liner to post an eight-game point streak since legend Brian Leetch did so from Oct. 30-Dec. 1, 1996. He is the first Ranger to record an eight-game assist streak since Theo Fleury from Nov. 7-26, 1999.
“I’m not impressed with what Ryan’s doing. He did this the first two years I was here,” head coach Alain Vigneault said. “He was our best defenseman. He was up in the rush, he was beating the forecheck.”
According to Vigneault, the biggest factor in McDonagh’s monster start to the season has been his good health. Last season, McDonagh missed four games due to a concussion and two games because of a jaw contusion. A broken pointer finger on his right hand caused him to miss the final three regular season games and opening two games of the playoffs.
“Last year, it was a little bit more demanding for some of our personnel,” Vigneault said. “A lot of it had to do with injuries. No one quite healed. You start behind the 8-ball a little bit. Sometimes, it’s a little tougher. This year, (McDonagh) had a great summer of training. He played real well at the World Cup and he’s come in and done exactly what we expected.”
Playing in his 400th career game, McDonagh recorded an assist in Tuesday’s 5-0 victory over the St. Louis Blues at Madison Square Garden. He led the Rangers with 21:06 TOI despite a scary moment during the first period. After being high-sticked to the face by Jori Lehtera, a hunched over McDonagh held his head with his right hand and skated head-first into the boards. Lehtera’s stick appeared to catch the Rangers’ captain underneath his visor. McDonagh was not available to speak to the media after the game.
Through 10 games, the Rangers lead the Metropolitan Division with a 7-3 record and 14 points. They have made The Garden a fortress, going 6-1. The Blueshirts have outscored two of last season’s Conference finalists, St. Louis and the Tampa Bay Lightning, 11-1 over their last two home games.
“We always want to make this a tough place to play,” forward J.T. Miller said. “It’s our home building. We want to make sure we are making it tough on teams when they come into town.”
While the Rangers certainly aren’t a one-man band, it cannot be downplayed how important a healthy McDonagh has been to their winning formula.
“He’s a pretty good all-around player,” forward Kevin Hayes said. “That’s why he’s our captain. He’s really good defensively, he has a lot assists already this year. If he’s healthy, he’s one of the best players in the league. He’s been impressive for us so far. I think he’s a main component as to why we’ve been successful. He can be relied on on the PK, the power play and five-on-five. He’s up there with the best guys.”
The captain teammates affectionately call “Trucker” has the Rangers running on diesel fuel.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey