Blueshirt Revival on Broadway ?
After a groggy start, the star-studded Rangers are poised to go on a roll
"Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed"
- Benjamim Franklin
"Good is not good when better is expected"
- Thomas Fuller
"High expectations are the key to everything"
- Sam Walton
"Around here, it gets late early"
- Yogi Berra
The New York Rangers skated into the 2012-2013 Campaign saddled with the weighty curse of expectations. Fresh off of their trip to the Eastern Conference Finals and a trade for power forward supreme Rick Nash, the oddsmakers installed the Blueshirts as the favorite to hoist the grandest trophy in all of Sports. And for darn good reason.
With emerging blue chip blue-liners, a Vezina Winner between the pipes and speedy forwards on deeply stacked lines, this group was clearly a unique blend of grit, experience and youthful enthusiasm with star power to spare. Many felt that a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals was a bigger lock than a visit from the Zamboni between Periods.
And then they dropped the puck.
Plagued by many of the problems of the pre-Nash era, these Rangers struggled mightily to put the puck in the net, a problem made more apparent by constant miscommunication on defense, a feeble power play and a star goalie who was clearly stuck in the doldrums on the heels of a lengthy lockout, the likes of which had hardcore hockey fans crafting voodoo dolls of Donald Fehr and Gary Bettman.
Adding to their overall angst was the truncated 48 game schedule, one in which sample sizes shrink, racetracks are shortened and the bounce of the puck more pivotal, and talent that arrives late to the dance isn't necessarily guaranteed a spot in front of the orchestra. Throw in the self-created drama of the impatient, hyperactive New York Media and panic was the prevailing emotion of the day. The team was 4-5 when something in the neighborhood of 8-1 was expected. Visions of Stephane Quintal, Tom Poti and Valeri Kamensky stumbled, bumbled and skated offsides through the incredulous minds of Ranger faithful everywhere.
But things can change quickly on the fast frozen sheet, and the last few games have given birth to optimism. Encouraging signs abound, and it's starting to look like this team is in fact ready to turn the corner and face the attrition-laden challenge that embodies a run to the Stanley Cup.
Let's take a look and see why:
Team Health - On a team loaded with both current and future superstars, it's often very easy to overlook and simply take for granted the contributions of both Ryan Callahan and Dan Girardi. Injuries are a fact of life in the NHL but to lose 2 gritty leaders who log big minutes at the same time is sure to take its toll. The fact is, the Rangers lost a lot of quality minutes when they shipped Brandon Dubinsky and Art Anisimov to Columbus and allowed Brandon Prust to sign with Montreal, not to mention the potential minutes that a player the caliber of Tim Erixson is capable of contributing, Erixon of course having also been shipped to the Blue Jackets in the Rick Nash swap. So while Nash became acclimated to each and every facet of John Tortorella's style of play, the gap in quality ice time was noticeable. But Nash is finding his groove while Girardi and Callahan are back playing their inspired brand of hockey.
When Ryan Callahan and Dan Girardi lace 'em up and contribute their 22-25 minutes per night, the Rangers chances of winning hockey games are greatly enhanced.
The Return of the King - By his own admission, Henrik Lundqvist rather candidly voiced his concern over the lengthy strike and how it would impact his play in the early stages. Whether it was a self-fulfilling prophecy or an acute case of ring rust, the King's play over the first 6-8 games was more reminiscent of a Court Jester against the backdrop of his own lofty standards. But over his last two games, both Ranger blow-outs, Lundqvist has allowed a mere 2 goals on 48 shots and his performance in the early stages of Sunday Night's 4-1 victory over the explosive Tampa Bay Lightning was quite simply vintage Henrik. With the ever-capable Martin Biron spelling Lundqvist as needed, look for the King to continue to match his recent level of Vezina-caliber goaltending, which is bad news for the rest of the Eastern Conference.
A Whale of a Farm System - A pod of young Whales lurk off the shores of Hartford, Connecticut, anxiously awaiting the call to join the big club. Yes the Rangers have slowly but steadily developed one of the premier AHL Affiliate Teams in all of hockey. Whether it was Chris Kreider and his 5 post-season goals last year or J.T. Miller bursting onto the scene with his unbridled enthusiasm and a pair of lamp lighters versus the rival Islanders last week, the Rangers have the rare luxury of being able to turn to the Connecticut Whale for a timely infusion of talent. Kris Newbury has from time to time stepped up in brief spells and given the Rangers valuable minutes and there are a number of other youngsters on the Whale who are poised to lend a hand if called upon. Although not as naturally gifted or blessed with the rare upside of Kreider or Miller, players like Michael Haley, Mike Vernace and even Brandon Segal are more than capable of contributing if called upon.
Secondary Scoring - There is no question that the fortunes of the New York Rangers rely heavily on Brad Richards, Marion Gaborik, Rick Nash and Ryan Callahan scoring goals early and often. But good teams find a way to spread the scoring around, and whether it's J.T. Miller, the mercurial Carl Hagelin or even Chris Kreider returning to his 2012 Post-Season Form, this Ranger Roster has a multitude of talented forwards all of whom are capable of giving opposing goaltenders fits. Carl Hagelin and set-up man Derek Stepan (+ 5 on the Season) were both singled out by Coach Tortorella for their play on Sunday Night and their continued contributions as a goal scorer and an elite set-up man respectively will be needed if the Rangers are to make a deep run. Defensemen Mark Staal (+5) and Michael Del Zotto (+6) have also gotten invovled in the scoring mix in the early stages of the Season, certainly an added bonus given their impact on the blueline and the minutes they contribute, typically over 45 combined minutes per game.
Star Power - Rich Nash......Mark Staal......Henrik Lundqvist.....Marian Gaborik. These players are among the best at what they do, and all of them are in the prime of their career or rapidly approaching it. Nash has quietly carved out a +8 start to the season and his play on the penalty kill coupled with his overall ability to make game changing individual plays has started to turn heads. Staal has 6 assists over the first 11 games, the set-up component of his game serving to compliment his superior physical lock-down defensive play. Gaborik leads the team with 6 Goals and has recently played with renewed vigor and a jump to his game that resembles the 38-42 goal scorer that he has historically been. Henrik Lundqvist as stated earlier is starting to look like Henrik Lundqvist again.
Yes, an air of confidence coupled with the prerequisite urgency required of a team with lofty aspirations in a shortened season has clearly kicked in. Look for the New York Rangers to battle the Pittsburgh Penguins, the New Jersey Devils and the rest of the Eastern Conference Heavyweights down the stretch of the 2012-2013 NHL Season.