First off, I would like to mention the tragic death of Avangard Omsk forward and New York Rangers prospect Alexei Cherepanov. His premature death is devastating to his friends, family and the hockey community. It is a shame that someone with so much potential was not able to fulfill it. My thoughts and prayers go out to the Cherepanov family on the loss of the boy who was, and the man he never had a chance to become.
But hockey continues through tragedy and the New York Rangers have continued in magnificent fashion through the first six games of the regular season. Their record stands at 5-1 and that only scratches the surface how they have played. The defense continues to be solid, allowing only 24.2 shots per game, and Henrik Lundqvist has been dominant while maintaining top 5 positions in Goals Against Average and Save Percentage. However, defensive success is not new for a team that finished last season with the 4th fewest goals allowed. Offense was the problem in 2007-08, mainly because the team could not find a consistent and effective style of play. The top lines, dominated by aging veteran players, generally played an east-west-south-and-rarely north style of play, while the rest of the team relied on grit and hard checking play.
Now, with players like Jagr and Shanahan being replaced by faster players such as Gomez, Zherdev and Dubinsky, this year’s team has found an identity as a quick and skilled team. This style of play suits the new NHL game much better and also allows for linemates to form chemistry more quickly and effectively. The style of young, talented players no longer must conform to the will of veteran superstars. Off-season acquisitions do not feel the need to squander opportunities to find the career 600 goal scorers with a useless pass. Instead, this feels more like a team effort, scoring by committee that helped the Sabres of 06-07 to a President’s Trophy.
Of course, this season did not come with the hype of the first year of the “7 million dollar men.” Instead it began with skepticism and concern as to whether the Rangers could compensate for the loss of players who had carried the team for the greater part of the three post-lockout seasons. While it is true that these so-called “core players” did not save last year’s offense from to0tal futility, the critics did not believe that the current roster could fill the holes left by the departure of those players. Ironically, it is under these conditions that the Rangers seem to thrive.
Since the lockout, expectations and performance seem to have had an inverse relationship for the Rangers. For two seasons in a row they have made a late season run when all was thought to be lost and made the playoffs. When expectations were so high at the starts of the past two years the team struggled mightily. Once again, the Rangers seem to have taken a liking to the underdog position by starting 5-0 even after MSG Network analysts said the Rangers had “potential to go to the 2nd round” on the team’s season preview show. But the Rangers themselves certainly have an attitude that they can go all the way, with Scott Gomez declaring that anything less than a Stanley Cup is “unacceptable.”
It is true that the first 6 games do not make a season but it is certainly fair for Rangers fans to draw hope from them. The team should only get better as the season progresses, and they certainly have shown that the ability to make a Stanley Cup run is present. A lot of things will have to come together for that to happen and it is a long way from even thinking about April, but if we learned one thing about this team, it is that they are contenders.