By Sean Hartnett
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The days of the Rangers having a stagnant, misfiring power play appear to be over.
For too long, the Blueshirts fell into the trap of trying to execute the perfect play. It was pass, pass, pass without a cutting edge. Groans would echo around Madison Square Garden and cries of “SHOOT!” grew with intensity as the Rangers struggled to make opponents pay for their transgressions.
During Alain Vigneault’s first four seasons in charge, the Rangers ranked 17th on the power play overall, with a combined regular season success rate of 18.4 percent. Over the same stretch in the playoffs, the Rangers were 22nd out of 26 teams with a 13.9 percent conversion rate, dipping to a pallid 7.7 percent last spring.
Fresh personnel and a change in emphasis were sorely needed and made. As a result, the Rangers (9-7-2) have been sharp as a tack on the man-advantage this season. They are currently ranked third overall, converting 25.8 percent of their chances.
Ahead of Wednesday’s meeting with the Chicago Blackhawks at United Center, the Rangers have scored a power play goal in five of their last seven games, hitting on a white-hot 39.1 percent of their opportunities. The biggest differences between this season’s success and last season’s mediocre-to-ineffective execution can be summed up with two words: decisiveness and simplification.
“We all have to be shooters first and I think that’s the first thing that we tell each other,” defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said last week. “We are simplifying it. We are not doing anything crazy, but we know when we have those weapons we have to use them. We’ve just been doing a very good job through our success of not getting outside of our game and making sure we are sticking to the plan.”
More than ever, you’re seeing big-bodied forwards like Chris Kreider and Rick Nash creating traffic in the low slot and effectively utilizing their size to disrupt the opposing netminder’s vision. Mika Zibanejad has been a danger man, camping out on the top of the left circle to fire off one-timers. Shattenkirk and Mats Zuccarello have been finding room to operate as power play quarterbacks due to the attention opponents pay to Zibanejad and the free-flowing movement the Blueshirts create.
It’s essentially pick your poison for opponents. An emphasis on pressuring Shattenkirk and Zuccarello at the point allows Zibanejad the space to find open looks, while keeping a close eye on Zibanejad leaves lanes for the point men to get shots through.
During Saturday’s 4-2 home victory over the Edmonton Oilers, the Rangers cashed in two of three power plays. Pavel Buchnevich scored in the second period on a tic-tac-toe sequence started by Zuccarello, then masterfully threaded by Shattenkirk. Not long after, captain Ryan McDonagh sent a spinning pass from along the boards to Brady Skjei, who lifted the puck over the stick of an Oiler to Nash’s wheelhouse.
“Obviously, confidence has to do with something, but I think we’re taking what’s given,” McDonagh said. “You see the one I was out there for — a puck battle won and you make a play from there and that’s what you got to do. You’ve got to really outwork the PK and not get outworked yourself. I liked the fact that we weren’t forcing anything. It was just making a couple of passes and getting it down to the net.”
Zibanejad’s 10 power play points rank fourth overall in the NHL, while Shattenkirk is tied for fifth with nine. Noticeably, Shattenkirk is getting shots through at a more consistent rate than anyone who has donned a Rangers sweater in some time. Buchnevich is just behind the pair with eight power play points. Four members of the Blueshirts — Zibanejad, Shattenkirk, Buchnevich, and Zuccarello — rank in the top 19 league-wide.
No matter which hockey arena you visit, you will always hear fans screaming for more shots when the power play fails to deliver. But the chant became emblematic of the power play futility the Rangers experienced in recent seasons, as over-intricate passing became an issue.
If last season’s power play execution could be compared to plodding elevator music, this season’s snappiness evokes a charging pop punk ditty. It’s gone from a muzak version of “The Girl from Ipanema” to something along the lines of Sum 41’s “Fatlip.”
Now, a different kind of echo is being heard around MSG when the Rangers are on the man-advantage. Chants of “Buuuchhh” and Zuuccccc” have replaced the boos and the groans have dissipated. Most importantly, a faltering power play that seemed to suck the life out of the World’s Most Famous Arena has been replaced by one that lights the lamp regularly and gives way to the Rangers’ identifiable “Slapshot,” or, as most fans know it, the “hey, hey, hey, hey, hey” goal song.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey