*NOTE*: I will be writing a series of blogs discussing a handful of teams whose expectations were minimal to start the season or even now. Within these teams, I believe one will take home the Stanley Cup to their franchise.
The second team I will be writing about is the New York Rangers. They debuted their off-season with a bang last summer, acquiring the likes of Scott Gomez and Chris Drury to an already offensive core. However, opinions varied whether or not this would prove to be a success.
As of today, they sit at 6th place in the Eastern Conference (37-24-9) and 5 points from 1st place. Much of their success has come from rock solid goaltending and reliable defense. While Drury and Gomez are not deemed failures, there is no player on their roster that has enjoyed a spectacular season offensively. In fact, not one player has a point-per-game, Gomez being the closest with 66 points in 70 games.
However, head coach Tom Renney has found an effective strategy for his forwards, separating his star players throughout three lines to form a good mix of offensive and defensive responsibility. The Rangers have potential to be an explosive team offensively, but they are currently struggling in the goal scoring department. If some of their key players can get back on track, the Rangers will be a complete team with minimal flaws aside from team character.
Imagine what a rejuvenated Jagr would do to the Rangers offense and team in general. He has only accumulated 18 goals and 59 points this season, quite low considering he won the Art Ross two years ago and posted 96 points last year. Don't be mistaken, if the Rangers are going to win anything this season, it will be because of this man. When he's on fire, so are the Rangers. And while he makes questionable decisions in his own end, he more than makes up for it if he's sniping goals and creating plays like used to.
A big reason as to why I think the Rangers have a good shot at the Cup is mainly due to their goaltending. "King Henrik" has had two Vezina Trophy nominations in the past two seasons and is capable of stealing games on a nightly basis. He displays a cool demeanor, quick reflexes, an incredible glove hand and perfect butterfly positioning. He has posted a 32-21-7 record to go along with a .910 SV%, 2.30 GAA and a remarkable 9 shutouts. As we all know, goaltending is the most crucial aspect to make a run for the Stanley Cup, and the Rangers don’t have to worry about that.
A player who cannot go unnoticed for his efforts is Brendan Shanahan. At 39 years old he continues to be a force offensively, scoring 22 goals in 62 games this season. Serving as a veteran presence, he is an excellent mentor for players like Brandon Dubinsky and Nigel Dawes, displaying emotion and aggressiveness to his game. With an old-school wrist shot at his disposal, "Shanny" is a keeper once the playoffs come around.
In the off-season, many analysts questioned the Rangers' defense, and whether it would be enough to withstand the 82-game schedule. As you can tell, that criticism has ceased. The Rangers' defense has not been outstanding, but they have displayed a reliable, simple strategy. On most nights, they go unnoticed by viewers, and this is not a bad thing. It means they are doing their job and are not getting caught in their own zone with bad defensive decisions.
Going into the playoffs, you can imagine the Rangers won't be discussed as Cup favorites or even making a significant run. I think that's false, if the Rangers can polish all facets of their game to new levels, they will be a force to be reckoned with. While they have had problems with motivation and team character, it appears as though it builds stronger with every game, and once the playoffs start it's up to the players to redefine and strengthen it to new levels.