Even strength is a definite weakness for NHL's Rangers

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With 37 games played, the Rangers are painted into the playoff picture, and they’re even in the Presidents’ Trophy conversation. However, given their Stanley Cup odds (22-1), oddsmakers don’t seem to be as threatened by the Rangers as they are the Hurricanes (12-1), Capitals (16-1) or Penguins (20-1).

Entering Tuesday, the Blueshirts were tied for third in the NHL in points (50) and ranked sixth in points percentage (.694), but they were tied for 11th in BetMGM’s Stanley Cup futures. In fact, they were listed at 25-1 prior to the season, so it doesn’t appear that the betting market has bought into the hype. They’re certainly not pretenders, but if those with skin in the game don’t feel strongly enough about the play of the Rangers to warrant moving the odds, maybe there is something holding the team back from being considered a contender.

Gerard Gallant has had the desired effect on the team, as it now plays with an edge, and his coaching staff has made huge strides with the Rangers’ special teams. They rank in the top 10 on both the power play and the penalty kill. However, the team’s play at even strength leaves a lot to be desired.

According to Evolving Hockey, the Rangers rank 28th in shot-attempt percentage (45.2) and their offense ranks 24th. Their defense ranks 14th, but Igor Shesterkin deserves the lion’s share of the credit. The 26-year-old is a co-favorite to win the Vezina Trophy (at 9-2, along with the Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevskiy) as the league’s best goaltender, but relying so much on a single player means the team is somewhat fragile.

If you ask me, the Rangers are a three-headed monster, and the team is going to go as far as Shesterkin, Artemi Panarin and Adam Fox can take it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but Thursday’s game against the Vegas Golden Knights (a 5-1 loss) is a perfect example of what happens if they have to take on an elite team without a couple of their biggest weapons.

It might sound as if I’m being negative, but consider the fact that the Penguins and Capitals have both kept up with the Rangers even though some of their top players have barely suited up this season, if at all. The division is only going to get stronger when Evgeni Malkin returns and Nicklas Backstrom is healthy.

Shesterkin can level the playing field and make it seem as if the Rangers are in the same class as teams such as the Hurricanes, Penguins and Capitals, but most of the game is played at even strength. If the Rangers don’t improve that part of their game, there’s reason to be skeptical about just how deep they can go in the playoffs.

When Panarin and Fox aren’t on the ice, the Rangers get outplayed and outscored, and there’s a lot riding on their health and that of Shesterkin. Gallant has a lot to work with, as the Rangers are loaded with talent, and if he can get them to a point where they are dominating teams at even strength, everyone will take notice.

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