There’s no denying that it’s been a rough go as a Rangers fan since that surreal June night eighteen years ago when all of the heartbreak of 54 years was erased the moment Commissioner Gary Bettman told Captain Mark Messier to come on over and get the Stanley Cup.
Since falling to the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference Finals in 1997, the Rangers have missed the playoffs eight times and have won one playoff round (sweeping the Atlanta Thrashers in the quarterfinals in 2007). In the post-lockout years, there’s always been an annual midseason slump to dig out of to try and earn a postseason berth. Five of those six seasons, they did.
So the cynical Rangers fan has sat and waited for that midseason breakdown to come. And waited, and waited. While waiting, the Rangers have managed to open up a 9-point lead on the defending Cup champion Boston Bruins. Somehow, they have opened up a 10-point lead on Atlantic Division rivals the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins, and have games in hand on both.
Resiliency is a trait the Rangers have forged as part of their team identity. Last season it came in the form of withstanding a rash of injuries to key players such as Marian Gaborik, Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan and just in general not mailing it in when they’d get down in a game. This year it’s been managing to stem the losing and get the ship righted before a winding up in a damaging losing streak. Remarkably the Rangers have avoided any sort of a significant losing streak of any kind, with the worst being two.
“I think this year’s team’s a lot different from years past,” defenseman Dan Girardi said following the Rangers’ 3-0 victory over the Bruins Tuesday night. “We don’t want to lose more than one or two games in a row and that’s really been propelling us up the standings and creating some separation.”
Henrik Lundqvist took his game to yet another level in what turned out to be his Broadway-Hat-worthy, League-leading 7th shutout of the season, turning aside all 42 shots thrown at him by the Bruins, making that win on score alone seem deceptive. They were able to capitalize on Bruins’ mistakes and ride their Vezina-worthy netminder, something not lost on coach John Tortorella.
“I wouldn’t have paid for the start of that game,” he said. “I thought both teams were just there. I thought we played better the second half of the first period, from then on. We end up with a two-nothing lead. We defended really well, but that’s all we did. And when we had breakdowns, Hank was there. So, I’m happy we won. I need to respect the fact of our schedule a little bit here. I’ll give our team that. We have a lot of things to work on. Henrik should have six hats on tonight.”
When interviewed during the postgame show on MSG Network, Dubinsky (who suffered a swollen lip, received 10 stitches in his mouth and chipped a few teeth after taking a puck to the face in the third period) was clearly not satisfied with the performance either saying, “We need to be better than we were tonight.”
The Rangers from the top down are not team content to rest on its laurels and know there’s room to improve. They’ve gone from a team on the hunt, one scratching and clawing simply to squeak in to the postseason to the hunted, one that everyone is gunning for, one that the hockey world is finally taking seriously as the class of the Eastern Conference and emerging as a Cup contender. There’s still 27 regular season games to go and if they want to remain there they’ll need to keep striving for better. Whether or not upgrades come via trade some time in the next twelve days, this current roster of players is capable of being even better.
Stick tap to my Hockey Independent colleague Benjamin Woodward for his contribution to this post.
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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