First and foremost, thanks to Carp for letting me take a couple of shifts for him this week. I’m grateful for the opportunity.
It certainly has been an interesting and incredible first half of the season for the Rangers. Who could have imagined they’d be in first place overall in the Eastern Conference at this point? Who could have predicted they’d get 31 opportunities to rock the Broadway Hat? So many things — most of them good — have happened with this team since training camp. Here are the highlights/happenings/things of note — as I see ‘em:
1. On the road again, and again, and again — The first phase of renovations at MSG led the Rangers on their extended European vacation during training camp — and beyond. There were four exhibition games against Euro teams from Prague to Zug, followed by two regular-season games in Stockholm against the Kings and the Ducks. All of that topped off by a plane ride across the Atlantic, a stop at the Nassau Mausoleum and a four-game swing through Western Canada before even playing a single match on Garden ice. Lots of frequent flyer miles, a 3-2-2 record to start the season — and plenty of time for this young team to bond.
2. Defending the home front — We haven’t seen the Rangers play this well at home in many years: 15-5-2 so far. That’s the difference between struggling to make a 7th or 8th seed, and playing for a top-four spot in the conference.
3. The “D” gets an “A” — In the absence of backline aces Marc Staal and Michael Sauer and missing the solid contributions the team gets from Steven Eminger, the play of All-Star Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh has been a revelation. Girardi leads the league in time on ice (27:24 per game), and McDonagh — in only his second season in the NHL — has become one of the league’s better shutdown defensemen. Anton Stralman, Jeff Woywitka, Stu Bickel and the re-emergence of Michael Del Zotto (plus 22) have also been integral to the team’s success.
4. The gold standard in goaltending — Henrik Lundqvist and Marty Biron have formed a superior netminding tandem – perhaps the league’s best. The psychological advantage that King Henrik (22-10-4, 1.87 goals against average, 5 shutouts — 40 in his career) has given this team on a game-in, game-out basis cannot be underestimated. Perhaps this is the year he nabs the Vezina Trophy. Maybe the Hart as MVP, too. Biron (9-2, 1.87 goals against average, 2 shutouts) has consistently provided a calming presence between the pipes.
5. Outside and outstanding — Winning the Flyer-centric Winter Classic in Philly was one of the highlights of the season so far. Down 2-zip in the second period, and dealing with deteriorating playing conditions, the Rangers persevered — even in the wake of some of the worst officiating we’ve seen in years. Amazing theatre at the end of the match when Lundqvist locked down the penalty shot attempt by Danny Briere. HBO’s “24/7” leading up to the game was a compelling look at both teams. Loved the camera work, the trash talking on the ice, Grandma Callahan and the Boyle family Christmas party. HBO even managed to portray a couple of the Flyers as human.
6. No Mr. Softies — Remember the Rangers beating the Sharks 5-2 on Halloween at MSG, and Joe Thornton calling the Rangers the “softest team they’ve faced” on their road trip? The Rangers record since Jumbo Joe opened his trap: 27-9-1. And John Tortorella ripped him when he heard about the remark — “Joe hasn’t won a *&^%$ thing in this league.” Priceless.
7. Totally Tortorella — Speaking of the coach — many people who post on this blog do not like John Tortorella and his methods for some strange reason. I couldn’t disagree with them more. The man obviously knows how to coach — he did an outstanding job as he kept his team focused through the European vacation, HBO, the Winter Classic — with no long losing streaks. Tortorella’s tirade in St. Louis after the first period of an eventual loss as seen on “24/7” tells you how we feels about his team and the way they need to play. Trust me — anybody who thinks they have it bad with their boss should take a look at this gem on YouTube.
8. Getting Rich quick — I thought the Brad Richards signing back in July was a strong move and I’m sticking to my guns here. He has six game-winners already this season and he serves as a main conduit between the coach and the rest of the team. Hoisting a cup with the Tortorella-coached Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004 goes a long way towards giving him major credibility in the room.
9. Gabby=goals — Marian Gaborik is playing with passion and purpose — skating with abandon, finding the openings and scoring goals at an impressive clip. Twenty-five markers as of this writing. He had only 22 all of last season.
10. Movin’ at 62 MPH — At times, it seems that’s how fast #62 — Carl Hagelin, can skate. Since his Thanksgiving call up, he has provided jet-engine speed, skill and a bit of snarl, too. Hagelin does an outstanding job of backing up the opponent’s defense with his superior skating, creating time and space for numerous scoring chances. Works the cycle pretty well, too. Would love to see him get more minutes on both the power play and the penalty kill.
11. Response-ability — All season long, the Rangers have shown an uncanny ability to bounce back from tough losses — as they put a lid on potential losing streaks. After flops against Ottawa, Montreal and Pittsburgh, they followed with shutout wins against the Leafs and Predators — as well as the battle royale OT victory in Boston this past Saturday.
12. Streakers — A seven-game winning and three five-gamers have given the Rangers the separation they need in the standings — so they don’t have to struggle at season’s end just to make the playoffs.
13. Callahan can — Last, but certainly not least — in his first season as Rangers captain, Ryan Callahan has exhibited all the traits you could want in a leader. #24 is the embodiment of what the Rangers have become. He is all heart, all hustle, doggedly determined and extremely talented. The prototypical Tortorella-type player, he can be counted on by the coach to deliver in all situations. Plus, coming through the ranks in the Rangers organization shows that they can draft and develop the type of players who can hold such high authority.
Tomorrow – Part 2:
What needs to happen (and not happen) in the second half of the regular season, in order for the Rangers to have a great Spring.