New York Rangers Atop East Thanks To Fresh Defensive Contributions

NEW YORK NY - FEBRUARY 20: Michael Del Zotto #4 of the New York Rangers controls the puck against the Philadelpia Flyers at Madison Square Garden on February 20 2011 in New York City. The Flyers defeated the Rangers 4-2. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

Marc Staal has been out of the lineup all year for the New York Rangers. Most teams don't get better defensively when losing their best defenseman, so what's the deal at Madison Square Garden? It's not all Henrik Lundqvist.

The New York Rangers have shocked me this season, and it's not because they're sitting atop the Eastern Conference in late December, but it's exactly how they've been able to do so.

Aside from the reigning Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins, the Rangers have given up the fewest goals in the NHL so far this season, allowing just 72 in 34 games. Obviously, with a guy like Henrik Lundqvist between the pipes, the goals against totals are always going to be relatively low, and the Rangers have been a top 10 team in terms of goals against per game in every season since the lockout.

This year has been particularly impressive, though. Lundqvist has been his usual self, ranking third in the NHL in both save percentage even strength save percentage. The defense, on the other hand, has been absolutely ravaged by injuries. Steve Eminger is out for months with a shoulder injury, Michael Sauer is still out indefinitely with a concussion and Jeff Woywitka is dealing with a foot issue.

Oh, right. Marc Staal, the Rangers best defenseman, has been out all season with a concussion of his own.

The credit for how well the Rangers have played without Staal, a guy who plays in all situations and against the best the opposition has to offer, really has to fall in two places.

For starters, it's safe to say the team would be nowhere without the contributions of Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh, who have been placed together on a unit and have absolutely flourished. They've seen increases across the board from last year, from the quality of their competition to their overall ice time to their special teams responsibilities. McDonagh, actually, saw virtually no power play time a year ago, and now in the absence of Staal he's been asked to contribute much more than he may have been comfortable with.

The two have played so well together that there's a legitimate chance Staal, partnered with Girardi for most of last season, could find himself with a new partner when he returns to the lineup, a move that could come sooner than later. And that's okay, thanks to the wonderfully surprising play of Michael Del Zotto.

Del Zotto has been highly touted as a defensive prospect in the Rangers organization, but after playing a full 80 games in the NHL his rookie season of 2009-10, Del Zotto was underwhelming in his sophomore campaign. After sitting as a healthy scratch for a number of games, the Rangers opted to send him back to the AHL in early 2011. His power play production -- the staple of his game during his rookie year -- had fallen off the face of the earth, and his game just wasn't up to par after it had seemed the hype was so real.

Here's Rangers head coach talking about Del Zotto's demotion, via the New York Post:

"It's seeing improvement in his mindset and play on the ice," Tortorella said when asked what Del Zotto needs to show in order to earn a recall. "It's him understanding how to think the game, to think preparation, and also bring that to within his game as far as the minutes he gets there."

"Sometimes players don't agree with it, but it's not up to the player," Tortorella said. "This is a 20-year-old kid and sometimes they don't see it right now, but eventually he is going to realize this is good for him.

It's going to be good for him as a player and good for us as an organization."

It certainly was good for the organization. Consider first off that when Del Zotto was originally demoted in January, he was replaced in New York by McDonagh, and not only was McDonagh never sent back to the Connecticut Whale, but he's turned into a top-pairing defenseman for the Rangers during Staal's absence this season.

On the flip side, Del Zotto regained a ton of confidence during his time in the AHL, and he's put that stint in the minors to good use so far with the Rangers this season. We'll let the experts at Rangers blog Blueshirt Banter explain.

Del Zotto's defense has also been solid though. Twice the past two weeks Del Zotto has saved a sure goal from going in with some very intelligent hockey plays. But two goal-saving moves done make a good defense, they just put the cherry on top.

Del Zotto has been playing very solid in his own zone, winning battles in the corners and keeping everything to the outside. He's physical when he needs to be and is always one of the first defenseman in the crease to protect Lundqvist in a scrum.

His play has obviously caught John Tortorella's eye, with the coach trusting Del Zotto for nearly 23 minutes a night and giving him critical late-period minutes.

Some of that's out of necessity, obviously, with Staal out of the lineup, but Del Zotto has been able to step up in the face of that injury. His defensive partner so far this season has been Eminger, now out for the near future, and with Girardi and McDonagh running things as the top pair, Del Zotto's been the anchor on that second pairing.

Whenever Marc Staal does get back into the lineup, it seems simple to slot him in next to Del Zotto, creating an absolutely terrifying top four on the blueline at Madison Square Garden. And to think the Rangers are already sitting pretty atop the Eastern Conference.

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