So the Rangers are playing better than they have during the last four months of the season. It is obvious that John Tortorella is the biggest cause of the turnaround; after losing his first two games behind the bench, the new coach has led the Blueshirts to four victories in five games. He is clearly a motivator, as evidenced by the effectiveness of his locker room rant on Thursday night in Nashville.
Nothing can deny the fact that the Rangers won that game fair and square and did so by dominating the last 40 minutes in which they outshot the desperate Predators by a 26-11 margin and outscored them 3-0. It was another regulation win. Another game in which they scored 4 goals. Another game in which they beat the opposition by 2+ goals. And another game that was tainted by a second string goaltender.
Let us get something straight. The Rangers deserved to win that game, as they did the previous three wins. But one has to wonder if they would have won had they been facing stronger competition. If Pekka Rinne had been in net for Nashville it is very likely that the Rangers would not have been able to come back as they did, despite their great effort. With the exception of the Sjostrom goal, which game off a gorgeous feed from Blair Betts on a shorthanded rush, the Rangers got the puck into the net thanks to poor positioning and even worse rebound control by Dan Ellis.
If Tim Thomas had started instead of Manny Fernandez when the Rangers faced off against the top team in the east, the Rangers would have walked away with nothing to show for their effort. If it hadn't been Yann Danis across the ice from Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers might not have put up a four spot on the feisty Islanders. True, a few weeks ago they would not have won any of these games, even with the same goaltender situation, and that shows tremendous improvement. However, it does not prove that the Rangers are playoff worthy.
Take a look at who the Rangers are fighting with for a playoff spot. The Canadians, Penguins and Hurricanes who occupy the 5th, 6th and 8th spots respectively, have been playing great hockey of late, each having gotten points in at least 7 of their last 10 contests. And while Florida and Buffalo have been average lately, you can expect Tomas Vokoun to give the Panthers a fighting chance, and there is no doubt that return of Thomas Vanek will continue to help the Sabres.
The difference between the 5th and 10th seed in 5 points and the Rangers are right in middle of the pack. It is safe to say that there is little room for error. I have harped on the schedule a lot on my previous blogs so you know that the Rangers are going to have to beat a lot of good teams down the stretch. There are never easy games during a playoff race but the last 14 games of the season are going to be cruel and unusual. And there will be starting goalies.
I applaud the Rangers on a great effort thus far. They have played very well, but that may not be good enough. I question if the current effort will suffice against elite opponents and goaltenders during the final month or if the Rangers will need to reach a higher level of play that they may or may not be capable of attaining. We will know for certain after the home-and-home against the Flyers where the Rangers can at best create a tie in points with fourth place Philadelphia and at worst fall back out of a playoff spot. This is where the Rangers will prove themselves. It will be against Biron, Nittymaki or both. And that is good enough for me.