This is a midseason analysis I wrote for The Journal News and LoHud.com today:
It is 27-10-4, good for first place in the NHL’s Eastern Conference, second overall, at the halfway point of the Rangers’ season.
In fact, it couldn’t be better.
But could the Rangers be better? Will they be better? Won’t they have to be better? And where is the ceiling for this team in 2011-12? Is it a solid playoff team that could win a round or two or three? Could we even be thinking Stanley Cup? Should we?
So many questions.
Here’s what went right, what we could expect to improve and what the Rangers need to do in the second half.
The Identity: We hear it all the time. The Rangers are this hard-working, shot-blocking team that comes right at you. This isn’t a myth. The Rangers are physical and tough, and opponents really don’t like playing against them. It’ll be a tough night because they will wear you down, go north-south and through you; and mostly because they don’t quit. They stay with it, play the style that works, from puck drop to final buzzer and beyond. It starts with the coach, John Tortorella, and his home-grown captain, Ryan Callahan.
Keeping the puck out: The Rangers’ success is based on their overall defensive play (2.02 goals-against average), which very much includes their possessing the puck in the offensive zone and wearing out opponents. It also includes stellar goaltending, which they’ve gotten from Henrik Lundqvist (two goals against or fewer in 21 of 31 starts) and Martin Biron; and a relentless penalty kill. And perhaps the biggest surprise of the season — the way the Rangers have survived and thrived, even, without Marc Staal for the first 36 games, and without Michael Sauer for the last 17 and counting, and at one point without four of the top seven defensemen in the system. Kudos especially to Dan Girardi (the NHL leader in average ice time per game and among the top shot blockers), Ryan McDonagh and Michael Del Zotto.
Situations: The Rangers have improved markedly at home this season (13-4-2). They have continued a trend of being one of the best third-period teams in the NHL. They haven’t lost (in regulation) either the first game (5-0-1) or the second game (5-0-1) when they’ve played back-to-back games. They have responded well after defeats, having lost as many as two in a row in regulation twice all season. And they’ve won five or more in a row four times.
Distractions: The Rangers have turned them all into positive experiences, and grown from them. You know the list — the European trip to start the season, and seven in a row on the road due to the renovation of the Garden; the Winter Classic and HBO’s invasive “24/7” cameras. The Rangers embraced all of them … and won the Classic to boot.
Timeliness: Brad Richards has six game-winning goals, including one with .01 of a second left in regulation against the Coyotes; Ryan McDonagh’s goal with 1.8 left in overtime won a game against the Flames; and Lundqvist’s save on the Flyers’ Daniel Briere on a penalty shot with 19.6 left in regulation preserved a victory in the Winter Classic. Lately, the Rangers have prevailed in OT — on Marian Gaborik’s winner, one of 23 goals for him in a bounce-back season — and in a shootout.
What could have been better
The offense: The power play continues to be a problem, despite the addition of Richards and the rebirth of Gaborik. The Bruins won the Cup with a lousy power play last season. It sure makes it tough to win without a good one. We didn’t expect the Rangers to be an offensive force; they just don’t have the high-end skill. But it could have been better.
Personnel: Richards was expected to be Gaborik’s center, and that didn’t work from the start. The Rangers had all those defensemen out, especially Staal and Sauer. Brandon Dubinsky had one goal through 31 games. Brian Boyle and Brandon Prust are way below their expected offensive outputs. Mike Rupp needed knee surgery. Every team has these issues. The Rangers had their share.
Expectations: The bar has been raised. But should we realistically expect this team to win a Stanley Cup, or contend for one? In most years, a non-favorite emerges and makes a run to the final four, or the Cup finals. So, sure, the Rangers could make noise. Are we really thinking they will be that team? Either way, this team is building toward being a legitimate Cup threat in the next few years.
The offense: More goals — more skill, more speed — is an obvious answer. How to get them? Do the Rangers go out and trade some of their core young players and/or prospects and/or picks for a legit top-three scoring forward? If so, that guy has to fit the identity; he has to be willing to grind and pay the price — otherwise, he’d better score a ton. Or do the Rangers go the rental route and get a veteran or two who can help the young players in the playoffs? General manager Glen Sather’s trade record has been terrific in recent years, and he usually seems to do what nobody expects him to do, so we won’t even speculate on specifics.
The NHL trade deadline is Feb. 27. The Rangers will make for an interesting story that day, won’t they?
Getty Images photo, above.