After last night’s thrilling 2-1 overtime win at Madison Square Garden, the Rangers fine themselves sitting in playoff position in the Eastern Conference. Granted, they are in 7th place, but only trail the Penguins (who are tops in the East) by six points. If you had told me at the begining of the season that the Rangers would be comfortably in the playoffs and playing exciting physical hockey, despite missing Marian Gaborik, Chris Drury, Vinny Prospal, Ryan Callahan, and Erik Christensen for long stretches, I would imagine that any Rangers fan would be thrilled. When you add in that Gaborik has been ineffective for long stretches, Michael Del Zotto being sent down, Sean Avery has barely played, and Alexander Frolov has given the team next to nothing, having 49 points at the midway point of the season is downright dumbfounding.
The Rangers head to Dallas to kick off the second half of their season tomorrow night, and while questions loom around this team, a couple of things are clear. They will work hard and they are the most physical Rangers team since 95-96. They don’t need their star scorers to score in order to win, and they have depth, even if it isn’t star quality. That depth has helped them overcome injuries and a lack of productivity from the above mentioned cogs.
I think a couple of key questions will determine how the Rangers fare the rest of the way.
- Will John Torterella stop constantly adjusting lines and let chemistry develop, and who sits when Ryan Callahan returns to the lineup? At least the Rangers know that they will get All-Star caliber efforts from Brandon Dubinsky (whoa was he a monster last night!) Marc Staal, and Dan Girardi.
- Will Sean Avery continue to play the creative high speed offensive game he displayed last night while being chippy? His creativity and ability to create space really seemed to charge up Gaborik. Gaborik has lacked a linemate that creates space. Last night, Carolina’s players focused on Avery, and Gaborik got going. Avery and Gaborik are also friends off the ice, so hopefully this combination can continue to click. I am not sure if Anisimov is the right fit at center, but Derek Stepan will have to improve on faceoffs in order to take AA’s place.
- How can the Rangers improve the power play? Right now, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, Michael Roszival, and Matt Gilroy are all clearly not comfortable quarterbacking the power play. Staal and Girardi are having fantastic seasons, but both are robotic and not adept at getting shots through. Roszival is a poor passer and continues to be hesitant despite a booming shot. Gilroy looked good last night, but he is more of a skating/shooting D, and has not exhibited the passing ability to really get the forwards in good position to score. Michael Del Zotto was sent down to Hartford to fix his game, and even he has looked much more tenative this season. Even worse, he seems to have acquired Wade Redden syndrome, ie the complete inability to fake and change the angle of a point shot to keep it from getting blocked.
- Once the power play finds a QB, the Rangers more consistently have to get traffic in front of the net. Unlike past Ranger teams, the forwards seem to be willing to go to traffic spots to score, but on the power play they move away from the net because the defense has been so inept with their puck movement. I think Torts should also consider giving Brian Boyle some shifts as a screener on the power play as well. Hopefully Derek Stepan and Matts "Frodo from Modo" Zuccarello can continue to develop their game while giving the Rangers an infusion of high skill.
- Can the Rangers get any production from Alexander Frolov? I was a huge fan of the Frolov signing. I saw him play twice against the Capitals here in Washington DC and he was dynamic. He had a big body out front, was excellent on the wall, and had a sharp wrist shot that was dangerous out to above the circles. I saw someone who was a big body, highly skilled, and a proven 25-30 goal scorer, was a huge, highly motivated value on a one year deal. Sadly, Frolov has displayed none of the scoring ability that he showed in LA. Even his goals have been garbage goals. He seems almost allergic to shooting the puck, and until he can start finding the net, the job of being Marian Gaborik’s left wing should belong to Sean Avery. Frolov’s contract and offensive talent may be valuable to someone at the deadline, but lets hope Frolov can produce something and then let him walk in the offseason.
- Finally, the Rangers must hope that they can continue to get production from Brian Boyle, Brandon Prust, Ruslan Fedotenko, and Michael Sauer. Three of the four were not even expected to make the Rangers, and now all four find themselves as perhaps the most important Rangers this season. Fedotenko has been steadily excellent. Prust has taken on all comers and plays a hardhat game every night. Boyle has turned into Tim Kerr with his goalscoring, and Michael Sauer has been the best #5 defenseman the Rangers have had since I started watching them. It may be unrealistic for them to continue their offensive productivity, but with Chris Drury completely inept offensively and the other injuries, they will need to continue to crash and bang the Rangers to wins.
We want Dallas!