March 30, 2011
On the surface, the New York Rangers are Henrik Lundqvist's(notes) team, and it's hard to argue the inherent value in 11 shutouts and a 2.24 GAA in 61 starts. Coach John Tortorella said Wednesday he's made "key saves at key times" for the Rangers in their blistering 8-1-1 run near the end of the season.
If Lundqvist is the backbone, then the Rangers' core group of forwards Brandon Dubinsky(notes) and Ryan Callahan(notes), and defensemen Marc Staal(notes) and Dan Girardi(notes), are the brains and, maybe, the heart of this team.
According to coach John Tortorella, speaking before Wednesday night's big game against the Buffalo Sabres, this is the youngest team he's had in New York, and that youth has willfully grabbed the reins of leadership this season.
"I think the team is a tight-knit group, and I think they help one another. I think a team being so young had helped our young guys, if that makes sense, because they feel more comfortable playing with other young guys. We don't have a lot of older people on this club," he said. "We've done mostly everything as a team. Everything we do is front and center [in teaching our team concepts]."
There's a lot to like with the Rangers right now. They can win by scoring goals, having popped in more than four in five of 12 games this month. They can win the close ones: Witness the 1-0 victories against Florida and Boston last week. They pay the price, blocking more shots (1,299) than any team in the NHL. And then there's Lundqvist, who has been like a force field back there at times.
Is it time to move beyond the fact that this team is going to be a pain in the rump to face in the Eastern Conference playoffs, and start treating the Rangers as serious contenders to make a run this spring?
Blueshirt Banter asked if it's time to get excited about this Rangers team in a handy good/bad/ugly format:
The Good: This team plays like a team. They have shown they can play a gutsy shut-down defense. They can do it on the road in tough buildings against tough teams. They get the big saves from the king who has battled more these past weeks then I can remember. They can kill penalties and with the addition of McCabe, can actually be a threat with one man up. They can protect the lead as demonstrated from being the only team that is unbeaten when leading after two periods. They battle for each other, go into the dirty areas, maintain possession on the down-low cycle. Although they will never be confused for a highly skilled offensive juggernaut, they can score goals...they type of goals that can win games in the playoffs.
Scotty Hockey saw the Rangers tested in a 1-0 win against the Bruins over the weekend, and liked what he saw:
There have been a few times this season that the opponent has upped their effort and threw everything -- including the kitchen sink -- at the Ranger crease. And the Rangers, well, the Rangers were outstanding. Pressure builds diamonds and the Blueshirts shone as Boston upped the ante. It was periods like the third that give faith that this team has what it takes to win somewhere down the line. They can survive the siege, just wait until they go on the offensive.
Former NHLer Chris Kotsopoulos, blogging on Kotsy's Korner, thinks it's all about the "D":
The other part of the overall defense of the Rangers are the defensemen themselves. Mark Staal, Dan Giradi, Ryan McDonagh(notes), Michael Sauer, Steve Eminger(notes), Brian McCabe, and Matt Gilroy(notes) have contributed greatly in the Rangers fortunes. These names on the D may not frighten many opponents when it comes down to the nasty, physical department (Someday?) but they have done the job blocking shots and playing smart hockey.
I mean, really, check these numbers: the Rangers have scored 218 goals, 181 goals against (2nd in the East and 3rd overall in the NHL) with a goal differential of +37. The +37 ranks in the top 4 in the entire NHL! That folks is absolutely incredible! The numbers don't lie in a league where scoring is almost extinct. You have to rely on solid team defense and the Rangers are getting that from goaltender on out. Impressive? I'd say so.
If there's one concern about the Rangers, it's whether they can keep up this pace and this style of play. From The Dark Ranger:
I shudder over the Rangers engaging the Bruins during an early round of the playoffs because the winner would be beaten up.
Everytime a Ranger player puts his body in front of a shot, he risks getting dinged, or breaking a hand, or finger, or ankle or worse. Dubinsky, Callahan and Drury have lost significant time to such injuries the past 2 seasons.
Let's not forget the beating that Henrik has taken recently -- Bergeron ran him into the back of the net and shook up Henrik. The collective sighs one could hear reverberated like a cold winter wind through streets of Manhattan. The offense could provide some cushion in these games to take some pressure off.
The Rangers' offense, as good as it's been, still concerns us. Particularly at center, where most of their Eastern Conference rivals go two-deep with outstanding pivots: Think Boston, Pittsburgh (with Sidney healthy), Philly, Washington or Tampa Bay.
The rookie's skills make him a good fit with Gaborik and Prospal, whose chemistry has been a major factor in the former's late-season resurgence.
"He gives us a defensive presence, he's a pretty good defensive player," John Tortorella said. "He's a smart player. He's been coached well, throughout his years, in college, and he's picked up how we play away from the puck very well, and has done better on faceoffs. For a young man, coming in and not sure where he was going to be when he turned pro, he's handled himself very well …"
There are a lot of young men on the team Tortorella's coaching. They've handled adversity and increased responsibility well this season. And if they continue to play this brand of hockey this effectively, there's no telling where they're going.