It’s been a really long time since I’ve seen the Rangers have a line just dominate a game like the Richards-Gaborik-Hagelin combo did tonight. Obviously there have been more impressive individual displays from players, i.e. Jagr and Gaborik each too many times to count, but the top line tonight was just 2 steps ahead of the Canes for the entire 60 minutes.
They combined for 15 shots; the Rangers had 29. They had all 4 of the Rangers goals, and have had combined to score 7 of the team’s last 8 goals. Every time they had possession of the puck, they looked terrifying and the Canes looked like they just could not keep up. These stats do not count the post Gaborik hit, the near miss Gaborik had that Zucc accidentally deflected, and Richards putting one just over the crossbar. In summation: they were really, really good.
There are probably a few reasons the Rangers’ latest iteration of the 1st line has gotten off to such a ridiculous start. A, all 3 guys are on serious hot streaks (Richards has 8 points in his last 4, Gabby has 6 in his last 3, and Hagelin has 10 in 10). B, they’ve played 2 games together against 2 squads (NYI and the Canes) that aren’t anywhere near playoff contention. Hot streaks end, there are tough stretches ahead on the schedule.
A couple things that won’t change: speed. Speed, speed, speed. Hagelin won fastest skater at the All-Star Game and has great agility. Gaborik has been voted both the fastest skater and best all-around skater in the NHL by his fellow players for at least 3 years in a row. Richards is no slouch himself. When you have one player on a line who has exceptional speed, teams can use numbers isolate and contain that player (that’s the book on defending Ovechkin and what teams did to Gabby last year) thus negating the advantage of speed. When you have multiple players with game-breaking speed on a single line, your opponent can’t afford to overload a side or double-team a single player because that leaves the opposite side of the ice completely vulnerable. That means d-men or back checking forwards will get isolated on Richards, Gabby or Hags, and most players can’t handle that. It’s a match-up nightmare.
Considering I wildly overreacted to the performance of the Gaborik-Arty-Stepan line early this year, I’ll note that this may not last. I’m confident they can keep it up because Richards and Gabby are proven elite-level talents, and Hagelin is a great complementary player for them. Maybe teams will figure out how to slow them down, and teams will most certainly cause them to hit a few bumps in the road. That doesn’t mean I won’t be enjoying the ride while it lasts.