There is an uncertainty among the Ranger fan base right now. The team is winning consistently, they have established an identity, and fans are asking themselves whether this season is too good to be true. I cannot blame you if you are one of these people, because historically the franchise has been one that gets its fans excited, but in the end leaves them in disappointment. I am going to go out on a limb here, though, and urge fans to get excited and be proud of what this team has accomplished. It is okay to feel good about this squad, because based on number of wins, they are a top five team in the National Hockey League at the moment. Considering the fact that on paper they are only "mediocre", that is pretty remarkable.
Before I go any further, I want to make it clear that this article will not be my attempt to get you to drink the kool aid. I am not here to preach the notion that this team is "magical" or "special". There are far too many faults in an argument that's foundation is based on either of those. Instead, I am going to present you with pure facts. My goal is to prove to you why this team is different from years past, and why this team has the ability to go further this season than the last two. Not all of you will agree with me, I know that, but I am going to give it my best shot nonetheless.
The first thing I wanted to talk about is the Rangers' ability to cope with injuries to vital players. For example, they were without their captain up until two weeks ago. That is two and a half months of hockey that the Blueshirts did not have their biggest leader there to guide them. Some of you may argue that Chris Drury does not contribute a whole lot when he is in the lineup, but you do not know how he is behind closed doors. The one thing every teammate of Drury's always says about him is that when he talks, the entire team turns and listens. Despite being without that, the Rangers were still able to win by finding ways to make up for Chris' absence.
Very similar situation with Marian Gaborik, who was out of the lineup with a separated shoulder from October 15th to November 11th. Gaborik is undoubtedly the Rangers' most naturally talented skater and last season led the team in goals and points. When Gabby went down in the home opener, everyone thought the Rangers were already done until he returned. That may have been the case a year ago when Gaborik basically was the entire team, but not this year. Players like Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan and Brian Boyle stepped up and filled Marian's shoes, or at least did their very best to do so. Yet again, without an extremely important player in the lineup, the Rangers posted a winning record and were successful. That speaks volumes of their character and ability to adjust.
And now they are currently going through the same thing with alternate captain Ryan Callahan. He is the heart and soul of this team, and I will admit that I was a little nervous when he originally broke his hand. But once again the team has come together and fought through it, putting together a string of wins here and there to keep pace with those ahead of them in the standings.
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The next thing I wanted to mention is the work ethic of this hockey club, and I think the coaching staff deserves a lot of credit for this. Night in and night out, for the most part, the effort has been consistent. The Rangers are relentless on the forecheck and on defense as well. They may not always be perfect, but they fight and they fight extremely hard. This is where they have finally established an identity. They are not a team that will outplay you through skill, but rather a team that will outwork you and grind until the very final buzzer.
This particular style of play has John Tortorella's name written all over it and throughout his coaching career has been his claim to fame. GM Glen Sather wanted his team to play like this for years, and by bringing in Tortorella, he knew he would get what he wanted. So I give credit to both of them for working together to instill this effective system.
To dive a little deeper into this, let's look at individual performances. Call me crazy, but I truly believe that two of the most important players on this team have been Brandon Prust and Brian Boyle. Ignore scoring, even though Boyle has done that quite often. Their importance to this hockey club begins in the heart. They are the type of players that would take a bullet for their teammates. They deeply care about aiding the team towards a win, no matter what the circumstances are. In other words, they play for the name on the front of the jersey, not the one on the back. Although they may not be the most skilled out there, they set an excellent example for their teammates.
Next, take that same effort and add impressive skill and you have Brandon Dubinsky. In my opinion, Brandon Dubinsky has been the team MVP for the Rangers this season. He has proved me wrong in every possible way and I absolutely love it. I said in the off-season that if he had another down year I felt that he would find himself on the trade block. Well, he has come out and put up career numbers and has been the team's most consistent player. Heck, even after saying what I did over the summer, Dubi's marvelous play sparked me to go buy a heritage jersey with his name on the back. He is a star and that is a down right fact. Good for him.
|2010 - Brandon Dubinsky||16||16||32||0||44|
Rookie Derek Stepan has also been a very important piece to the puzzle. He is third in the league among freshman in scoring and at the age of twenty is centering the first line for the New York Rangers. It doesn't get much better than that as a rookie and his performance this season has had a lot to do with the Rangers' success. He is a competitor having played in crucial games before (Gold Medal Game vs. Canada in WJC for example) and his winning mentality will take him very far in the NHL and as a Blueshirt.
I know there are many other names on offense that have had an impact on the team that I did not mention, but I am not going to go down the whole list here. I touched upon the three different genres of players that have made this team run. In the end, they have all produced because of the same thing and that is effort.
It should also be mentioned that goal scoring has been abundant this year, especially among the secondary scorers. The Rangers have the seventh best goal differential in the league at +20, which means they have scored twenty more goals than they have allowed this season. Scoring has not been a struggle for the first year since the lockout. All I can say is it's about time.
Lastly, defense and goaltending have not been spotless, but they have been good enough to accomplish what they need to. Marc Staal and Dan Girardi have led the way on the blue-line as the club's shutdown defensemen. Then you have Michal Rozsival, who has taken his game to the next level this year. And then there is Michael Sauer and Steve Eminger filling the role of crease clearers and body bangers. The Blueshirts have not had players like Sauer and Eminger in years, and now they have two, both coming at a premium price.
Mike Del Zotto and Matt Gilroy have been on and off, but realize that both are young and still learning the game. That sixth spot has been the only real weakness on defense, but even so, neither player has been "horrific" at any point during the season. It's little mistakes that have added up that have hurt them, especially for Del Zotto. But that is something that can be fixed.
Henrik Lundqvist is Henrik Lundqvist and that is about all I have to say there. Early on he was very streaky, but as I promised he straightened himself out and now has excellent numbers. He's won the team multiple games this season. That may be a result of more rest, which has been possible because of Marty Biron. Biron has proved to be the best back-up goaltender the Rangers have had since, I don't know, Kevin Weekes? He is reliable and gives Tortorella an extra option between the pipes.
|2010 - Henrik Lundqvist||30||1745||16||12||70||2.41||884||814||.921||5|
When you take all of this and combine it, it forms a team whose possibilities are endless. The only thing this team lacks right now is an abundance of skill such as that of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings. Otherwise, everything from effort, to scoring, to winning has improved from years past. This team is good and I am telling you that it is okay to get excited about them. I don't expect a Stanley Cup, but I expect a much more satisfying end to the season than last year.
As a fan, I am very proud of what this squad has accomplished this season, and I am very proud to call myself a fan in the first place.
Happy New Year!