Last night was a trip to the past. It was October of 2008 in Ottawa, and that was not good news for the hometown Senators. Because their opponent remembered that success was indeed the product of their hard work, and not a gift for the lazy. They remembered that they are more capable of winning low scoring than high scoring games. And they finally returned to their identity as a swarming defensive team that can and must survive by scoring two or three goals per game. This comparatively easy road trip will define who the Rangers are and what they can do. It will either be the turning point or the sinking point of the season, and during the last two nights the Rangers showed that they want no part of a sinking ship.
There are two ways to play a hockey game. There is the up-tempo offensive contest in which defensive stability is sacrificed for offensive aggression. There is also the slower and physically bruising game that showcases defensive prowess and takes advantage of the chances generated by the opponent’s mistakes. The blowout games in which teams win by five or more goals generally occur when one team is far superior to the other, or when a goaltender/defense corps puts out an unusually poor performance. As far as the Rangers go, we can all agree that they are not far superior to most, if not all, teams and will rarely outscore an opponent by more than three. They need to pick a focus and stick with it throughout every period of every game of this season. They did that beautifully during the first month of the season and were rewarded with a legitimate spot atop the Eastern Conference. But then they went away from that. They started giving up 3 or more goals, something that goalie Henrik Lundqvist did only twice in 18 starts to being the season. Now, giving up three goals has become commonplace, and while scoring has increased slightly, the Rangers have given up too much on the defensive end to warrant that type of play.
It was a slow transition. Perhaps the criticism of their “fake” shootout wins motivated the Rangers to play a more offensive game. Maybe they were frustrated with being at the bottom of the league in scoring again. But no matter the cause, the Rangers shifted from the defensive game that they excel at to the offensive game that they can not keep up with. At first they would change their style for a period, hence the lack of “full efforts” observed by the frustrated fans. Then they play would change from game to game, with the less predictable offensive type games becoming more predominant in the matchups. The final scores became more erratic. The score would be 3-1 on one night and 6-3 the next. But what was consistent was that the Rangers were usually on the receiving end of the beating.
They found it, for however briefly, during the west coast road trip. They played hard, they protected the net and they kept the scoring to a minimum. That is how they almost beat the Sharks, by not allowing the offensively gifted team to trade scoring chances with them. They stayed at home, played smart and generated quality opportunities without risking too much defensively. And then the worst possible thing happened. The Rangers faced that blowout situation, the time when the opposing goalie plays exceptionally poorly. And that was enough for them to forget, only one period later, how they needed to play. They became, in their minds, an offensive force. They decided to play aggressively against Washington and in doing so, played into the hands of the Capitals. Because the Capitals like to play that type of game and they fooled the Rangers into playing it as well. From then on, it was back to the old habits, more erratic losses and a rare win or two. But not anymore.
They scored three goals in the past two games. But the Rangers aren’t complaining because they only gave up one. They remember that it is easier for them, with Henrik Lundqvist in net and no particular uber-talented forward, to win games 2-0 than to win them 5-4. They left home to find themselves and have done so, for the second straight time. If they can remember this, they will win more games than they lose and especially be a force in the intense and defense-oriented post-season.
So for all you fans who want to know if the Rangers will build off of this, if this is indeed the turning point, there is one simple way to find out. It will only be a matter of time before the Rangers will have an opportunity to be lured into an offensive game. It could by falling behind early, or taking a seemingly insurmountable lead. When that moment comes, you will notice if the Rangers change their game or keep to the plan. If they continue where they left off then they survive to play another day. But if they forget what got them to the top, then they will need to remember awfully quickly, or all hope will be lost.