Yes, Virginia, he can write a positive article on the Rangers!
The New York Rangers, after starting off with an abysmal record and level of play seem to have reversed themselves in a stunning 360. Perhaps it was overreaction, or maybe a European trip hangover, where recovering from many different changes in time zones while traveling more than 10,000 miles took its toll. Now, 14 games into the season, the Rangers are playing how everyone expected. Okay, so all of these games have not been masterpieces, but they did not have to be—the bottom line is, the Rangers are playing some great hockey, coming through when they need it the most, and all while experiencing some self-examination and quite a few blessings in disguise.
The Rangers needed a center for Marian Gaborik, but unbeknownst to them, he was already on the team when Brad Richards was signed. After starting out the season like almost everyone else, youngster Derek Stepan seems to be blossoming into a force to be reckoned with, after being placed on the team’s first line (one that has gone three games without be juggled by John “The Mixologist” Tortorella). He had only one assist in his first eight games, and he now has three goals and six assists in his last six. Meanwhile, Marian Gaborik continues to be the goal scorer that they signed two seasons ago, when he put up 42 goals in his debut year on Broadway. After experiencing a myriad of injuries last season and never being able to find his game except in a few multi-goal outbursts, he has settled in nicely with his new-found linemates, with nine goals and six assists for 15 points in 14 games. Should he score two more goals, he would have cut last season’s 62 game total in half. In actuality, he only scored in 14 games last season, including two hat tricks and one four-goal game. This season, he has already scored in seven.
The blessing in disguise here, for the Rangers, is the fact that Brad Richards is not centering Marian Gaborik, the exact reason why he was signed to a very expensive, multi-year deal to begin with. This is actually the best thing that could have happened to the Rangers, because now, instead of a first line, two third lines, and a fourth line, they have lines 1a and 1b, followed by a third line and a fourth line. Everybody has found their niche and the role they are supposed to be playing in—no one is being asked to do more, at least offensively. Defensively, poor Dan Girardi is probably going to have a heart attack by Thanksgiving, after averaging nearly a half a game’s worth of playing time every night. Not to jinx him, but his play has been nearly flawless, and his style has been gritty and effective. Throw Ryan McDonagh, and a nice $4 Thank-You card from Hallmark to Bob Gainey, into the mix, and I would say that the Rangers have the best defensive corps in the league, one that additionally sports the solid and physical Mike Sauer and a revitalized Michael Del Zotto, who has matched the amount of goals he scored in 47 games last year already this season.
As much as we Rangers fans like to complain, we sure like to eat crow as well. Who would not want to eat their words as opposed to seeing this team transform right before our very eyes? The development over the last two weeks alone is very encouraging, because they will only get better. As much as I like to rag on Brandon Dubinsky, he is not going to go the entire season without scoring a goal. Hopefully, once he nets one, they will come in bunches. Until then, though, fans do have a right to be on him, especially since he is coming off signing his first really big contract. He reminds me of Chris Higgins, during his short stint in New York. Higgins too did everything right, everything except score— he got plenty of shots on goal and chances, and was good at killing penalties, he just could not get that little black disk into the net. Once he gets going, and Richards actually has wingers to pass to, the Rangers may find themselves as one of the more formidable teams in the eastern conference.
The Rangers can also say they have one of the best goaltending tandems in the league, with perennial Vezina candidate Henrik Lundqvist, and the always dependable Martin Biron. Combined, the two have a 1.96 GAA, which is good for third best in the league. The Rangers have also shown a considerable amount of toughness in and around their own net. As opposed to years past, where opponents had free reign near Henrik Lundqvist in the crease, the defense, namely Ryan McDonagh, have done a good job in promptly setting such people on their rear end.
This may finally be the Rangers team we can be excited about. There is still a long way to go, but this is definitely a step up in the right direction, and if they keep playing this way, we will all be in for a treat on Broadway in this 2011/12 NHL season.