Five rungs left until the top. The distance can be climbed but there are only 13 chances left to do so. Below, the hordes of enemies are rushing up, the leader just one rung below. Its crunch time. Will the top be reached?
It has been quite a turnaround. Just a few weeks ago, the New York Rangers were substantially lower in the NHL food chain and barely clinging to playoff position. Now they are riding a massive 12 game streak in which they have earned at least 1 point, posting a 9-0-3 record in that period. They stand only 3 points behind the division and conference leading Devils. Ottawa is tied with one more win; Montreal and Pittsburgh are up two points each. Yet, although the Rangers' play needs to eclipse that of the four best teams in the conference in order to capture the #1 seed in the East, the top of the conference does not seem so far out of reach.
Perhaps this is not so surprising. The Rangers have made a religion out of botching the first part of the season, expectations and all, before going on a bombing run down the stretch and into the playoffs.
At this point of the season, the many crucial parts of the team have been running well individually and meshing well together. The chemistry is remarkable, the depth of the lineup is outstanding and the effort is exceptional. By no means have the Rangers been flawless; to the contrary, it has been their ability to rectify their mistakes that has created such a dramatic improvement. At the same time, the Rangers seem invincible, having captured 21 out of 24 possible points during the 12 game span. The fans feel confident that the Rangers will win, even when they are trailing. Most importantly, this team believes they can come back from a deficit or protect a lead. They believe that they can be successful in every scenario they are put in and they have proven that they indeed can. It is time for the Rangers to be seriously considered as a contender and a threat to win the Stanley Cup.
The Rangers last fell in regulation in a 4-1 loss to the Ducks on February 7. It is no coincidence that such a defeat has not occurred since. Since then, the three major facets of the game have been mastered and have worked together almost mechanically. Although the game is infinitely more complex than these three words, all aspects of hockey can be classified under the general categories of: offense, defense, and goaltending.
Offense has been the Rangers’ weakness all year. The additions of Chris Drury and Scott Gomez were expected to raise the offensive production from the moment they stepped on the ice. Jaromir Jagr and Brendan Shanahan were supposed to have 30 goals and 80 points each. The Rangers had offensive stars to rely on for success and they were expected to carry he team. This was the flaw in reasoning of the fans, the players and the coaching staff. A team must rely on every player for success. It needs linemates to work together and lines to pick up the slack of their teammates. The players must buy into the system and realize that they do not need to, and cannot, do everything by themselves. Instead of this ideal, the system was being built around players while, in reality, the players should have been building their games around their teammates and the system. This slowed the ability of the Rangers' offense to gel and find its groove. Time was also a necessary ingredient in the Rangers’ offense, something that anxious fans were not ready to accept.
But time has passed and misconceptions have been discarded, and what is left is a Rangers offense that is different than planned, but one that meets, and currently exceeds, its expectations. No longer are individuals the focus of the offense. Now there are three potent scoring lines, groups of three that make it impossible for the opposition to focus on any one line.
Jaromir Jagr has taken Brandon Dubinsky and Sean Avery as his line-mates, a set up that may have slowed down his statistical output but contributed to the team’s as a whole. Now, instead of having Jagr, Gomez and Straka on one line, you have them spread out over three lines. Teams are unable to guard specifically against one line because the other two are just as capable of putting points on the board. The lines are very balanced with talented youth and proven veterans learning from each other and energizing the units. In the balanced system, Brandon Dubinsky and Nigel Dawes have been enabled to contribute to the offense in collaboration and on equal ground with Jaromir Jagr and Brendan Shanahan. Different players with diverse styles have meshed with each other to form one of the most complete scoring attacks in the East, and yes, I have heard of the Ottawa Senators. Now, the team that struggled to score two goals per game has only scored less than 3 goals on two occassions since February 1st.
Defense has been great throughout the season but slacked off a bit after the all-star break. They opposition was able control the puck deep in the Rangers' zone and was getting multiple scoring opportunities in every period. The defense were playing with increasing aggresiveness and emphasis on offense and as a result were more prone to turnovers and poor defensive decisions. Now, they are playing a more conservative, yet effective, offensive game and have focused shutting down the opposing offense.
Daniel Girardi and Fedor Tyutin have continued to be the best defense pairing on the team. Both have their signature moves, Tyutin the hip check and Girardi the poke check, and that is merely an obvious expression of how their styles differ but mesh. Marc Staal continues to be solid, Malik has been better than usual and Rozsival has continued his excellence on both sides of the puck. New pickup Christian Backman had been awful in his first few games but seems to be adjusting to his new teammates. On the whole, they playing solid and smart defense and at the same time are assisting the offensive game by joining the rush and keeping the puck in the offensive zone. As a group they have not been scoring as much as they had been early in the season and tend to pass more than to shoot, but that is more out of lack of neccessity than lack of involvement. In front of Lundqvist, they are playing smart, not turning the puck over, getting in shooting lanes and shutting down odd-man-rushes. There is a reason that the Rangers are have given up so few goals and that reason is more than Henrik Lundqvist. Nobody is questioning the Rangers defense anymore as they did in the offseason. They still fly under the radar but do so by playng quiet but effective defense.
King Henrik has such a nickname for a reason but recently he has not been quite as royal as he has been in past years. He has been inconsistent, his confidence is not always high and concentration has been an issue. He has made the good saves but the great ones haven’t come very often. Right now, he is playing well enough for the team to make a deep playoff run but not good enough to win the Stanley Cup.
He made some jaw dropping saves in Sundays’s shutout-shootout win against Boston, saves that I cannot describe well enough to do justice to, but some of which you will certainly see in the saves of the week. He is the key to the Rangers’ success and he is the one player who they cannot afford to have struggle. Henrik may take this game as one to build on or he may continue his inconsistant effort. But it is certain that the Rangers, or any NHL team for that matter, needs to have a hot goaltender to win 16 playoff games. Lundqvist needs to maintain concentration throughout the game and focus on rectifying the weaknesses in his game. He has the potential to be the best goalie in the league but must put out a consistant effort to acheive that. The hopes of a team and a city rest on the head of a young Swedish goaltender but if he rises to the occassion he will endear himslef further to his fans and organization.
There are many other virtues and flaws of this Rangers team, including effort, physical toughness and special teams to name a few, and each of them should be worked on. However, at the end of the day, it all boils down to how the players and coaches work together to make this team reach is maximum potential.
For now, the Rangers have 73 points and are 6th in the Eastern Conference. They have to pass 4 teams to get to the top, including the streaking Devils and the red-hot Habs. They have the Bruins and Flyers hot on their tails. But don’t count out the New York Rangers, because they are rapidly climbing up the ladder and the highest rung is within reach.