Two months ago, the New York Rangers finally played at home after a long road trip to open the season. The team returned from their 7-game trip with 9 points, but they came in incomplete, undisciplined efforts. They turned in a mediocre performance in a loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on October 27th, and promptly followed that up 2 days later by coughing up a 3-goal lead and losing in a shootout to the Ottawa Senators. Understandably, the Garden Faithful were not pleased, and let it be known. Some circles were demanding Sean Avery be brought back to cure the team’s woes. Others were calling for John Tortorella’s head.
Then suddenly, the light bulb went on. On Halloween, the “soft” Rangers took down the San Jose Sharks 5-2 and closed the home stand with wins over the Anaheim Ducks, Montreal Canadiens and Winnipeg Jets and proceeded to rattle off three more against the Senators, the Carolina Hurricanes and the rival New York Islanders. There’s been a seven-game win streak, a 5-game win streak and their current 5-game win streak that have accounted for 17 of the 21 wins they have on the season. Since their home opener, they have not lost more than 2 in a row. A major factor in the Rangers’ success has been balance throughout the lineup.
The balance begins in net. Henrik Lundqvist has been exactly what you’d expect him to be. When they’ve needed him to be lights out, he has. But when he needs a break, there’s tremendous confidence that backup Martin Biron is up to the task. Following the win on 4-2 win on December 22nd over the New York Islanders, Biron is now 7-1-0 (including a shutout) and boasts a .933 save percentage and 1.84 goals against average. After that game, John Tortorella called him the “1A” goaltender, as backup doesn’t seem an appropriate label for him. Tortorella is right. This combination is arguably one of the best pairings in the National Hockey League. At the rate that Biron is being started, Lundqvist would project to start in around 63 games, that would be the fewest starts since 53 in his rookie year when he started out as a backup. When playoff time comes around, having a fresh Lundqvist will be vital to a run.
Lundqvist and Biron have had plenty of help in front of them. Even before Marc Staal’s post-concussion syndrome issues came to light, there was some concern over the relative inexperience on the Rangers’ blue line. Relatively unnoticed outside of Rangers circles, Dan Girardi has stepped into the spotlight in his partner’s absence, leading the League in TOI with 27:27. Sophmore Ryan McDonagh has been equally up to the task partnering with Girardi. He’s 12th in the league in TOI with 25:15. They lost another top-4 defenseman, Michael Sauer, to a concussion on December 5th looked to be another blow to the the team. Steve Eminger and Michael Del Zotto stepped up to pick up the slack. Del Zotto has rebounded tremendously from the sophomore season from hell, and continues to mature. As for Eminger, he suffered a separated shoulder December 17th against the Phoenix Coyotes and is now out 8-10 weeks. When a team is built to be defense-first, losing half of the defense corps would seem like the kiss of death. But the players who have been brought in have done a decent job of filling in. Two players picked up to plug some of the defensive holes - Jeff Woywitka, plucked off the waiver wire from the Canadiens right before the season started and Anton Stralman, who was signed as a free agent on November 5th after failing to make the New Jersey Devils as a training camp tryout – have managed to hold the fort down. Stu Bickel, a callup from the Connecticut Whale when Eminger went down, has brought physicality and size back there and has put up 4 assists in the 4 games he’s played. How good have the Rangers been on the defensive side of things despite the injuries? They’ve only allowed 69 goals against in 34 games, putting them 2nd in the League behind Boston. As Staal moves ever-so-closer to returning, and once Sauer and Eminger are ready to come back to re-bolster the defense, tough choices will have to be made on who becomes the odd men out.
As far as the offense goes, they have not exactly been a juggernaut (101 goals scored is good enough for 9th in the League). Brandon Dubinsky, last year’s team-leading goal scorer, has all of 2. Brian Boyle, who shocked everyone with a 21-goal performance last year, also has scored only 2. The return of the Marian Gaborik of 2009-10 has helped. Gaborik has scored a League-leading 22 of them. He and sophomore Derek Stepan, who has 8 goals of his own, have clicked so perfectly together. Gaborik has accounted for just over 20% of the collective goal total, it doesn’t quite feel like it has in the past, where the offensive burden has been on one guy, the way it was when Gaborik first came as a free agent, or when Jaromir Jagr wore a blueshirt. The defense has chipped in 15. Ryan Callahan and Brad Richards are in the double-digits, with 13 and 12, respectively. Callup Carl Hagelin has dazzled with his speed and skill, with 6 goals in 16 games.
All around, this Rangers team feels far more balanced than it has in past seasons, not all on one or two guys to carry the load. It’s not always been pretty, perfect or complete, but so far it’s been good enough to put them at the top of the standings. However, they know they can’t just sit on their laurels, that they have to play better if they want to hang with the top of the pack and perhaps make some noise in the playoffs.
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About the Author: Likes: Hockey, the New York Rangers, King Henrik, singing the Rangers goal song, "The Save", the sound skates make against ice, heckling Marty Brodeur. Dislikes: 3-point games, front-office mismanagement, Denis Potvin, overpriced arena beer. Interested? Follow me on Twitter: @CC_927