1. The pattern was set in Europe. The Rangers were mostly out-skated in both games against LA and Anaheim, and the shot blocking persona came into sharp relief. We were going to be a black and blue team. But nothing over those first 10 games hinted at the team’s potential. In fact, the Rangers were outshot 321-245 over the first 10 games. On Oct. 18 in Vancouver, the slow start continued for two dismal periods as the Canucks flew across the ice but could not pierce the Wall of Hank. And in the third, Mike Rupp put the Blueshirts ahead en route to a stunning 4-0 win. That’s when the season began to turn.
2. Back home, though, losses to the Leafs and a blown 3-0 lead to Ottawa left us at 3-4-2 when the preseason Cup favorite Sharks rolled in. But Marty stoned them 5-2 for his 2nd win (remember Joe Thornton’s “we are better than them” post-game whine…how is your golf game, Joe?). The game was another key milestone as fans began to believe that the plan to rest Hank 20 games a year might actually work out.
3. The win over the Sharks launched a season defining seven-game win streak. Two bad losses on the road against the Habs and FL were discouraging but the Rangers came home and won two electrifying games against the Flyers and the Pens. Yet, the discerning fan still worried recognizing that through the first 22 games we were being out shot 673-577 suggesting there was a lot of dependence on Hank who by now was clear was having a Vezina quality season. But could he avoid the dips we had seen in past years?
4. The Winter Classic hype began to build through December and the Rangers played continued to impress. The month saw some real highlights, from the goal against Phoienix with .01 seconds left to Hagelin’s SH goal against Marty in a 4-1 W over the Devils, to another throbbing 4-2 home win against the Flyers. Of course, the Winter Classic capped off a stellar 11-5-1 run, including 5 straight, between Dec.1-Jan.2 firmly establishing the Rangers as a legitimate threat to win the East. By now, Hank’s jaw dropping level of play was taken for granted, and we realized McD was the steal of Sather’s tenancy as Ranger GM.
5. January dawned and many of us waited for the swoon. We’d seen it so often…good starts, then a collapse in Jan-Feb and a desperate sprint just to make the playoffs. Would this year be different?
6. Belief began to really set in this month as the Rangers posted an 8-3-1 record, including memorable Ws like the 3-2 OT heart stopper against Boston with the 5-3 goal with seconds left, Callie’s SO roofer against the Sabres after Hank and Miller put on a clinic in goal, and another OT win against TB in a fire wagon hockey game when Marty stood tall. And by now we knew the team was resilient, bouncing back from tough losses to Pitt only to beat Boston on the road, stinking up against Montreal only to shutout the Preds next, getting shut out at home by Ottawa (tough on us all year) only to play a near perfect game in shutting out the Leafs at the AC Centre.
7. The team closed out Feb. 6-3 but cracks were starting to show and in March they were more visible. The month imposed a burdensome 17 games in 30 day run including multiple 3 games in 4 nights, and it took its toll. We saw some games where the team looked out of it (Avs, Sabres, Hawks, Pens) and April started with a 2-1 loss to the Bruins where the team looked over matched for much of the game, and the season ended with 3 of 4 losses. But for an inexplicable swoon by the Pens against the Isles (the Isles!) the Rangers might well have lost first place and ended up in the 4th seed and a first round series against the Flyers. I wonder how much Sather’s stand pat deadline posture cost us, not because of Nash but the failure to add any depth on the back line.
8. The playoffs are too recent and too painful to bear review. We all know what happened. The team never seemed as dominant as they had before the March gauntlet. They seemed weary no matter what Torts said. They were on the heels more than at any point through the season. Objectively, they were outplayed well over 50% of the 60 periods (not including OT) they played, and in the final they dominated only 5 periods, 4 of them when there was total desperation. In fact, there was an eerie similarity between the team we saw in the playoffs and the team which was run out of buildings over the first 10 games. As Carp and others have pointed out, this was a .500 club after March 1. So where does that leave us?
9. It leaves me cautiously optimistic but hardly confident we can repeat as best in the East or even as Conference finalists. You can’t expect to go 6-0 against the Flyers again, the Pens are going to have Sid for a full year which is scary, the Sens are for real, the Bruins will be back, the Canes, the Panthers, the Caps, and the Lightning all figure to improve. So must we.
10. I believe in the Torts system BUT I believe there must be more balance. We were lucky no one got seriously hurt blocking shots (remember Callie in 2011), and even though we reversed the shot on goal disparity (ended up with 6th lowest shots against), we were 20th in shots for, and only three playoff teams were worse — NJ, Preds, Caps. In other words, 12 of 16 playoff teams had more shots on goal than the Rangers. Stats can lie but in this case I believe it reveals a real issue — lack of consistent offensive zone puck control and pressure, forcing us to play in our own end too much, thus requiring the surplus of shot blocking and heightening the risk of serious injury which amazingly we managed to avoid (Callie, please start wearing the new protective skates). I remember the Torts team in Tampa and it was relentless offensively, and by the way, Vinny, Marty, and BR were not recklessly blocking shots). Shot blocking should represent your work ethic and commitment to excellence and whatever it takes, but it should not be what you build a team around. It leaves no margin for error and the playoffs proved that. A few 4-1 games would have made a huge difference.
11. If I were Slats: I would do everything possible to add Parise or Nash…we need another legit sniper or else Gabby gets collared as happened in the playoffs, and while I think Kreider looks great 15 playoff games does not a career make and an 82 game grind is entirely different. I would sign a Jaret Stoll or Chris Kelly (we have serious depth issues up the middle (AA is a waste, Step may be the real deal but disappeared last two months so can’t count on him, and doubt J,T. Miller is ready for the bigs so who exactly centers a second acorer if we nab one?
12. I would try to sign or trade for a blueliner who understands how to shoot slappers from the point and actually gets it on goal (I think we lead the league in point shots that missed the net and AA would be a 50 goal scorer if the glass behind the goal counted); the Panthers Jason Garrison who had 16 goals or even a Mike Green whose defensive liabilities can be covered up if he is paired with the right guy. If we can either sign or trade for Ryan Suter or Shea Weber we should do it (I would regard Dubie and AA as trade bait, and even DeLZ if there is a package we could put together for one of those guys).
13. No idea if any of the above can work under the cap, or exactly how to package things. That’s why Slats gets the big bucks. Hopefully, some of the kids (Erixon, Miller, Thomas) are ready to step in but I would not count on it. In sum, a run to the finals this year would have been overachieving. It was great, exciting, filled with highs and lows, and cardiac moments. But what a ride! For the first time in years I am actually looking forward to a new season with belief not just blind hope. And that feels good.