41 games down. 41 games to go.
The first half of the year has been special for the New York Rangers. A trip across Europe. A feature on HBO’s 24/7. A Winter Classic victory. And, most importantly, a spot atop the Eastern Conference standings.
But all of this is just a means to a greater end. No matter how many special moments a season contains, it is only truly valuable if it leads to a Stanley Cup.
That is not to say that only one team can label its season as a success. Just as teams build upon good periods and good games, franchises build upon good seasons. A strong showing creates confidence and fortitude among players, coaches, and management. It persuades organizations to be more vigilant in adding the necessary pieces needed to finally go all the way.
Since the lockout, every Stanley Cup Champion has reached the conference finals in the prior season, barring Carolina (won the year following the cancelled season) and Boston (blew four straight chances to get there). It seems almost a prerequisite to victory; get close enough to the Cup and you gain the experience of playoff hockey, you gain the hunger for success, you gain the confidence it takes to win it all.
So, with half a season to go for the New York Rangers, should our expectations be extremely high? After starting the season so well, does the definition of success and failure change from the start of the season? Is anything short of a Stanley Cup a disappointment?
The answer to all these questions is: “No.”
Before the season began, we set the expectations for this club here.
A trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. This is a club that has not won a playoff round since 2007-08. Only five players from that team (Callahan, Dubinsky, Staal, Girardi, Lundqvist) are still with the club. They are young and inexperienced, and even the few former champions among them are role players (Fedotenko), very recent additions (Richards), or both (Rupp). Even with these pieces, the 2010-11 Rangers have never experienced success as a unit; it is asking too much to expect them to win 16 games this spring. An excellent 41 games doesn’t change that.
In the grand scheme of things, this season is just a stepping stone in a greater process. The Rangers are the 4th youngest team in the NHL (NHL Numbers
), and the only club to be both top 5 in the conference standings and top 10 in youth . With so many key players that have yet to play their best hockey, this team is only going to get better over the next few years. Considering the success they are already showing now, that is a very promising thought. Unlike some teams built with a “now-or-never” approach (see Chicago, 2010), the Rangers can afford to lose a playoff round. An excellent 41 games doesn’t change that.
That said, this season does not become an inconsequential endeavor. In fact, the outcome of this season is absolutely crucial because of everything mentioned above, be it the youth or the lack of experience, the confidence or the determination. A second half collapse would destroy the confidence of this young team, whether it results in something as extreme as missing the playoffs or something that weaker teams would call success, such as a quick 2nd round exit. A poor playoff showing could create other problems as well. Locker room rifts, lost confidence in the coaching staff, and rash transactions executed by the general manager all become possible when the bright lights of success fade away. That is the last thing that this promising team needs.
So the expectations remain the same: A trip to the conference finals. The most common step on the path to the championship. This team has shown that it is good enough to beat most teams on most nights. This is the best Rangers club to take the Garden ice since the mid 1990’s, but there needs to be some tangible accomplishment to support what we know to be true. Two playoff round victories would be uncharted territory for this group, and would confirm that this team is growing closer and closer to being a true contender.
A third round exit may seem like a disappointing prediction for a team playing so well. But 41 games does not change the Rangers, it only proves what we hoped to be true. This team is special and good things are on the way. So if they do make it past the second round, enjoy the ride and hope to go even further.
But if the ride ends there, just smile and know that the next ride you get on may damn well take you to your favorite destination.
Leave your thoughts in the comment section below
Weekly Recap/Preview blogs
at the start of every week
at the end of every week
Click to follow me on Twitter @ragstworiches
You know how critical I am of... well, just about everything. But this was extremely well written. And shows the type of critical thinking and objectivity that most fans of twice your years have never known and probably never will.