Looking back at our 2011-12 Puck Daddy staff prognostications, none of us picked the Rangers to finish lower than third. However, none of us picked the Rangers to finish first, either. And right now, they're leading the Eastern Conference with a 22-8-4 record and 48 points.
What's gone right? Some expected heroes, some happy accidents. Here are seven reasons why the Rangers are the beasts of the East.
1. Henrik Lundqvist, Henrik Lundqvist and also Henrik Lundqvist
He's been the foundation, the backbone and the hero for this franchise since the lockout, keeping average teams in the playoff hunt. This is an above-average team in front of him, and Lundqvist has been even better: 1.95 GAA, .936 save percentage and a 15-7-4 record.
Lundqvist can be a slump-buster or someone that can keep momentum building. He lost one start in November, winning eight. He hasn't suffered three consecutive regulation losses since Feb. 27-March 3 of last season; and that was only the second time it happened in 2009-10.
The scary thing about Lundqvist and the Rangers is that he's always been solid in the postseason, but just needed that big goal here or there to secure a victory. The Rangers' offense is deeper and more dangerous than it has been, thanks in no small part to …
2. Marian Gaborik
After an injury-plagued, underwhelming 2010-11 season, Gaborik has been consistently good — even if it's taken John Tortorella lighting a match or two under his keester. In 34 games last year, Gaborik had 11 goals and 14 assists; in his first 34 this season, he has 22 goals and 11 assists, including five power-play goals.
Had we told you this before the season, the assumption might have been that Richards was the catalyst. But that's perhaps the best thing about Gaborik this season: He's combined with Derek Stepan and Artem Anisimov (The GAS Line) to form the Rangers' top offensive unit.
3. Captain Callahan
Glen Sather is a guy known for blowing smoke, but he wasn't when he said the following about Ryan Callahan becoming the 26th captain in Rangers history: "He leads by example with courage and a tireless work ethic on and off the ice."
Callahan plays in every situation, throws the body, grinds it out in the offensive zone. His six power-play goals put him on pace for a career high; overall, he has 26 points in 34 games.
The value of a captain is hard to pin down in the NHL; the good ones probably get more credit than they deserve, and the ones on losing teams are never really scapegoat'd. But Callahan's a pacesetter on and off the ice.
4. The Brad Richards Effect
Callahan's time on a line with Brad Richards has, of course, helped juice his numbers. But more importantly, Richards gives opposing defenses a second line to worry about; he gives the Rangers a presence on special teams; and, perhaps most importantly, he's indoctrinated Olivia Munn into the hockey WAGs community.
5. Dan Girardi and Michael Del Zotto
Really, the entire blue line has been stellar for the Rangers, especially with Marc Staal on the shelf. But these two have been exceptional.
Girardi's average time on ice per game is 27:29. That is not a typo. It's nearly three minutes more per game on average than he played last season (24:34). He leads the Rangers in average shorthanded ice time (3:46) and is playing more on the power play this season than last (and, as a results, he's already matched his power-play point production from last season with seven points).
Del Zotto has completely erased his lackluster sophomore season from memory with 21 points in 34 games and a league-best plus-25. It all tracks back to Coach John Tortorella, according to Sean Hartnett of CBS New York:
Tortorella doesn't allow any player to bend the constraints of his system and in Del Zotto's case, Tortorella had to 'coach-out' the young defensemen's offense-first mentality and natural tendencies to join in the rush.
"He just keeps improving. As long as he handles himself off the ice the way he should as far as staying within himself and still learning what it is to be a pro, he'll keep growing," Tortorella mentioned at his latest post-game press conference.
Present-day Del Zotto now understands when to 'stay at home' and when to pick the right time to jump forward and make use of his offensive gifts. On Monday night against the Islanders, he knew when to put his foot down on the gas and show some of the awe-inspiring skill that Rangers fans enjoy watching.
In that game, he assisted on both of Carl Hagelin's goals. Speaking of which …
Hagelin, the University of Michigan product, has six goals in 16 games and has played well beyond expectations. His hustle and speed, especially on the penalty kill, have been an asset. He played Brandon Dubinsky off the Rangers' top line.
Picking up Staal's defensive minutes has been Ryan McDonagh, and he continues to make Sather look like a very smart man for dealing Scott Gomez. (Well, that's sort of a given, actually.) McDonagh's skating an average of 25:15 per game, up from 18:44 last season. He's been outstanding.
The depth of the Rangers' NHL roster and their farm system has been on display this season, and it hasn't disappointed.
Finally, there's Tortorella.
His Rangers teams have always made opponents work. They were blue collar and snarly. They threw their bodies in front of shots, and wore bruises as badges.
What they didn't have was a center like Brad Richards, or a Marian Gaborik line generating chances constantly or offensive contributions three lines deep. What they didn't have were reinforcements that could overcome injuries to key players.
This season is John Tortorella playing with a nearly-filled toy chest. He's managed the roster — from the Sean Avery issues to the replacement players — and lit fires under asses when necessary. He's always been more than a confrontational hot-head with the media — thanks to HBO, we're seeing more facets than ever — and this season has shown he's one of the better coaches in the NHL.
Note: As happens, great minds think alike. We had this on the dance card today, and Brandon from Blueshirt Banter had sorta the same idea. Check out his take from a Rangers supporter, rather than a self-loathing Devils fan (me).