Its that time of year again for the Rangers. It has come every year since the lockout, no matter how well or how poorly the season began. Because the Rangers are once again slipping out of the playoff picture ever so slowly, and if they do not right the ship soon, it will be too late. It is gut check time. Time to find out if this team can put together a solid string of games like they did so adeptly in October. Because since that month in which the red-hot Rangers went 10-2-1, they have posted a pedestrian 14-13-2 record. Hovering around .500 is a rather gloomy harbinger of things to come, but this is not new to New York. Whether it be during the post-Olympics stretch in 2006 or the early parts of the 07 and 08 season, the Rangers have had more than their fair share of mediocre stretches. Yet there was always a point to look back in which things turned around, the most obvious turning point being the acquisition of Sean Avery two seasons ago. Now, as the once-first place Rangers sit rather uncomfortably in 6th place in the East (with standings calculated by points/game), they find themselves pressed to return to the great form that they had at the start of October and they lost rather abruptly at the months end. And what better way to re-find their success than in a similar situation that they found it to begin with.
While Ottawa, Ontario, Canada is quite far from Prague, Czech Republic, the concept of the road trips are very similar. The Rangers will be playing in enemy territory, far from home and even further from their comfort zone. And while it may make the next five games a little more of a hassle for the players, it will force them to put a little more time and effort into hockey. There will be less distractions, less chance of getting jumpy in front of a frustrated home crowd and much less pressure to play good hockey. It is very likely that the Ranger shave been gripping their sticks to tight and trying too hard to make a play. They need to relax and go back to basics, and that is easier to do when your own fans aren't screaming "shooooooot" or groaning after every mistake. Plus, the Rangers have shown flashes of good play recently, especially during their 3 game trip out west in which they beat Los Angeles and Anaheim before outplaying San Jose in a positive 3-2 loss. But after a terrible, choke-away loss to Washington at home, the bad play resurfaced and caused the Rangers to lose all but two of the subsequent games. What the Rangers need to to is get away, and for 10 days they will.
Most road trips come with many negatives, but the upcoming excursion has few of them. For example, the Rangers will not leave the Eastern time zone, with Chicago being their western-most destination. It will not be a heavy schedule either, with 5 games in 10 days, including two breaks of two days each. Of course, their opponents are not very tough either, the five teams averaging only 40 points. Only 2 of the teams are currently in playoff position, with Chicago and Buffalo in 4th and 8th place in their respective conferences. In other words, these are games the Rangers should win, They should take 7-9 points out of the trip. But that is only if they are real contenders. There is a frighteningly strong possibility that the Rangers will drop 3 out of 5 games. If they do, it would not put the nail in the casket quite yet, but it is needless to say that the embalmers would be preparing the royal bandages.
This is the best opportunity the Rangers are going to have to get back on track. This trip has all the advantages of a road trip and almost none of the disadvantages. But what it does have is the ability to define the Rangers, to see how much better they are than the middle of the pack, and if they have what it takes to not just win, but consistently and constantly outplay weaker teams. If they do, then it may just serve as the second wind for this floundering team. If they don't, it may just prove to be fatal wound for the 2009 Rangers. Lets just hope the Rangers realize as much.