All right grumpy Rangers fans, its time to start pulling on those belts because another stretch run is about to begin and its shaping up to be a doozy. Yes, the Rangers aren't the perfect team, and they have been criticized about their flaws more often than a teenager at a dermatologist.
But in all of the history of sports, there has never been a perfect team. Yes, the Dolphins went 14-0 but they didn't win every game 100-0. That is is what happens when there is competition; it means that a whole lot of people are trying to be better than you, and even if you are the best of the rest, you won't be successful during every minute of every day.
So I think it is time to take a step back while enjoying the festivities of the All-Star Weekend and try to put into perspective exactly what the Rangers have accomplished this season, and the likelihood that they will accomplish what we all spend our winters hoping for.
The best place to start is the beginning so lets take a gander at the absolutely exhilarating start to the season and perhaps the stretch that spoiled us so badly. Of course, the record in October was 10-2-1 and most of us were not jumping ship on the Rangers chances quite yet. But one needs to remember that the Rangers only scored 2.76 goals per game during that stretch of games, so by no means were they showing any offensive prowess.
What they were doing is what they failed to do at the start of last season, and that is form an identity. Because when you look at these Rangers, there are no 40 goals scorers on the team and trying to play like there are is only harmful. But I digress. Essentially, the Rangers played how they did during the second half of the last two seasons, and their style was most comparable to how they played in the "7.7 seconds" Eastern Conference semifinals vs. Buffalo in 2007. The play showed that they had a solid understanding of the system that fits perfectly with their personnel and is the one and only way to be successful.
Granted, the execution was also near-perfect and that never lasts over the course of a full 82 game season, but the concept behind their success was really the driving factor. I won't bore you with the details of the system but it suffices to say that they played with a defense-first attitude and as a result did not need to rely on their offense to win games. Now we love to see exciting, high-scoring hockey games but I doubt any fan wouldn't trade a great game for a win. That is the point of being a team's fan, to root for your team to win.
But nonetheless, it was frustrating that the high paid talent up front was not producing at an acceptable point-per-dollar rate. There is no doubt that they were frustrated as well, but if you look closely enough, you realize that this frustration was selfish. "You play to win the game," and even though former Jets' Coach Herm Edwards couldn't win the game on most occasions, at least he got the idea of what he was there for. What the Rangers are there for is to win, and if they can win more games by scoring less, well by golly, you have to do that. They didn't.
This is where things begin to get painful. And I mean 14-13-2 painful. For all you hockey fans, that is more losses than wins. And for all you math professors, that is a bad thing. The solid defense suddenly become non-existent. The King suddenly stepped on the back of his robe, tripped and fell headlong into a pile of.....err....mediocrity. And the offense was scoring. Sort of. They had a few games in which they put up 4 or more goals, but there was never really any consistency in that.
And so, they abandoned their perfectly tailored style for a more risky style that increased mistakes a lot more than it increased performance. In cliche language, the Rangers were trying to be something that they weren't. They were trying to be the Sharks or the Red Wings when what they really are is (Note: The following is not suitable for children) the New Jersey Devils.
It may sound extreme to some of you, but the 3 time champion Devils didn't win hockey games with offense, they won it with defense and Martin Brodeur. And if you think about it, Henrik Lundqvist has become the successor to the title of "Best NY Area Goalie." What the Rangers need to do is allow Lundqvist to shine by relying on him to make a few tough saves and the odd spectacular one when the situation calls for it. They need to be careful with the puck in every square inch of the ice and get five players collapsing around the net when the opposing team has the puck deep. The last thing they need is to trade odd-man-rushes with the likes of Washington and Pittsburgh. And for some reason, that was the first thing they turned to when the going got tough. But instead of pulling them out, it pulled them deeper in.
Its amazing, really, how positive a bad stretch of games can be. Those same fans, including myself, who jumped to criticize the lack of scoring, the close games and the first period offense, are welcoming it back with open arms. I would take a 2-1 win over a 5-2 win because 5-2 means the Rangers didn't play their game or else their opponent left their effort in the locker room. But 2-1 means the Rangers played a full game, made very few mistakes and gained confidence in the system. It means that they aren't trying to do too much to win games, and instead are doing what they can.
The Rangers aren't best at most things, but they are best in the entire league at making other teams play badly. By that I mean that the Rangers have an ability, when they are executing their gameplan properly, to force other teams to play a style that does not suit them. They cause more offensive teams (and by that I mean virtually everybody) to play a slower, more methodical game.
Coincidentally, the Rangers play that game better than most and when they have done that (see 9 points in last 6 games with only 2 goals per game) they have found success. They can do it. They can win the Stanley Cup if they play their game. They don't even need to make personnel changes to win the Cup, though it would help substantially. The big IF here is not if they can do it, but if they decide to do it. IF they can continue to do what they have done in the last 6 games and play their game. It won't be easy. Every team is going to try to lure the Rangers into an offensive type game, to make the Rangers play a game they don't want to play. The test is to overcome that. To stick to the plan even if they go down by 2 goals in the 1st period, or go up by 3 late. To implode on one night but be rebuilt by the time the next game rolls around. They can do it. So for those of you who are worried that the Rangers will have to play perfect hockey to win the Cup, you are wrong. They will need to be near-perfect, that much is true. But so will everybody else. I will take my chances.
Dear Glen Sather,
I could start this letter by calling you a complete idiot, but you have been hearing a lot of that recently so I will refrain from that pleasure. But lets be honest with each other. We are royally screwed right now. We are more up against the cap than a frozen bottle of Coke (don't try that at home) and there seems to be no relief in sight. It is time to do something crazy. No, I don't mean signing Avery crazy, I mean salary dump crazy. I mean moving the Rangers captain for a prospect and a pick, or sending Wade Redden to the minors. Why, you ask? Well, maneuverability is everything in a Cap world. If the Rangers don't go on a dominating tear by the time the trade deadline hits then something has to be done. Maybe a scoring winger or a shut down defenseman. None of these things come cheap so you will need the cap space to do this. And even if you can't secure a good player for the stretch run, there is not way you are going to sign Dubinsky, Staal, Zherdev, Mara and others when you already have 40 million dollars tied up in 9 players. It is not possible, even Enron executives could tell you that. So something has to change. Add by subtracting. And if you do that, maybe we won't storm the front office chanting "Messier for GM." Then again, maybe we will anyways.
Eastern Conference Predictions:
MVP: Henrik Lundqvist- You can't not give it to him. He has been the main reason the Rangers are ten points ahead of their pace from last year.
Offensive Player: Nikolai Zherdev- He lead the team in points and has been brilliant at times. If the Rangers can sign him long term, he is their future superstar.
Defensive Player: Paul Mara- 15 point and one of five Rangers with a plus rating. That is not to mention the physical prowess he brings to the table.
Best Addition: Markus Naslund- The veteran brings a calming presence to a young team and has put up 15-15-30 this season. He also has been the lone presence on the PP.
Best Under-The-Radar: Blair Betts and Fredrick Sjostrom- The PK unit has guided the Rangers to a league best 87.6 percentage on the kill. They have also held down the fort on the fourth line.
So there is your hope filled blog. Hope I have convinced you to hope for a Cup. Remember, no team is ever out of it until its mathematically impossible. And the Rangers are far from out of it.
"We're halfway there, living on a prayer"
LETS GO RANGERS