Whether the Rangers are really the best team in the NHL, or even worthy of being in the conversation, is not something I’m ready to tackle. But I do know they have the league’s best record.
How do you explain it? On this off day for your favorite hockey team, let’s break out the chalk and go by point-by-point:
<li>Goaltending, goaltending, goaltending: I’m not breaking any news here. Henrik Lundqvist is already in Vezina Trophy form, and probably responsible for stealing at least a couple of wins on his own. Last night, a game in which the Rangers took an early lead but then left the goalie unprotected in the first period, is only the latest example.
Throw in the two solid showings by Stephen (“If I’m a minor leaguer, what are you?”) Valiquette, and you can make a strong argument the Rangers have the best one-two tandem in the league right now.
<li>Early arrivals: Needless to say, if having everyone show up a few weeks before the official start of training camp is the key to a flying start, guys would be lining up outside the rinks in June (OK, probably not – the NHLPA wouldn’t allow it). But while it might not guarantee wins, the fact that pretty much the entire roster was on the ice together as early as Sept. 1 helped minimize some of the October chemistry problems that many teams confront.
The other part to consider is that because of their off-season work, the Rangers are one of the best conditioned teams in the league, and have been able to wear down their opponents late in games.
<li>Favorable schedule: Let’s face it, of the Rangers nine wins so far, six have come against teams with sub-.500 records. That includes two wins over Tampa (1-3-3), and recent wins over Columbus (3-6) and the Islanders (2-6). Not that beating those teams is a given. One of the points I make in my story in today’s paper is that the Rangers “have become proficient at beating the teams they’re supposed to beat”:http://www.lohud.com/article/20081028/SPORTS01/810280402/-1/SPORTS. That wasn’t the case last season, when they laid eggs against some of the worst teams in the league (Tampa, L.A., the Islanders, Toronto).
And it hasn’t just been the quality of their opponent that has helped the Rangers. What could easily have been a detriment to the team — a compressed October schedule — has worked to its advantage. If the Rangers are figuring out ways to win games early, it only helps to keep playing.
<li>Unexpected contributions: Raise your hand if you had Aaron Voros leading the team in goals and Fredrik Sjostrom winning two games in a shootout in the season’s first month. Anyone? Hello? Me, neither. But when you get important contributions from different segments of your lineup, you benefit from a greater sense of balance within your locker room. That was a knock against the Rangers in the Jaromir Jagr years: they were too top heavy. But at least in the early going, it seems more players are taking ownership in the team’s success.
Which brings up my next point…
<li>A handful of individual slow starts hasn’t killed the Rangers: There is at least the chance that when your best players aren’t clicking right away, the whole team suffers. That was the case last season when the likes of Jagr, Chris Drury, and even Scott Gomez were all out of sync in the opening month, and the Rangers couldn’t get on the same page. This season, Drury didn’t score his first two goals until last night, Markus Naslund didn’t seem to find his game until last week, and Wade Redden still seems to be fighting it. The fact that pretty much everyone else has started wellÂ has helped prevent those struggles from taking on a life of their own.
If success begets success, the opposite is true, too.
<li>Coaching: It’s not just that Tom Renney and his staff have created a system that players have bought into, it’s that the system and the personnel finally match. More than once players have said how they’ve allowed the team’s game plan to protect them, which is a vague way of saying they haven’t panicked when the results haven’t been there.
The question remains whether the Rangers’ attention to defense comes at the expense of a more potent attack, because I’m sure the team will come out on the wrong end of another 2-1 game and everyone will begin lamenting the lack of serious punch up front. But right now, the Rangers are winning games because they’re on the same page more than the teams they’re facing.
So there you have it, one man’s take on the first dozen games, which would be worth celebrating if not for the small detail that there are still 70 games still left to play.
Chances are the ride at times won’t be as smooth as it is now, so you might as well enjoy it while you can.