The New York Rangers had a great close to 2014 by going 9-3 in December, which is pretty remarkable when you consider the fact that they lost their first two games of the month to the Tampa Bay Lightning (who seem to have the Blueshirts' number) and the Detroit Red Wings. However, looking back at the teams that the Rangers faced in December, it shouldn't be that much of a surprise that they put together a significant winning streak. Although, to be fair, I'm not sure anyone expected an eight game rampage that was eventually derailed by the Dallas Stars. Before going on their winning streak the Rangers were in peril of returning to a record of .500, and after a certain point in the year you simply can't have realistic playoff aspirations with that kind of a record. The Rangers needed to play exceptional hockey in December against very beatable teams and that is just what they did, but now December is over.
The month of January will be a very difficult challenge for the Blueshirts, and that challenge starts with a brutal three game road trip against California's three NHL franchises. The Rangers will play three games in four nights against three of the best teams from the Pacific Division, including the team that beat them in the Stanley Cup Final last spring.
- The Anaheim Ducks, 26-9-6. Home ice record: 14-4-3. The Ducks currently have the best record in the NHL. They win 79% of the games in which they score the first goal and they win 87% of the games they play after they are leading at the end first period. In other words, they are an outstanding hockey team that doesn't often cough up leads and dominates on home ice.
- The Los Angeles Kings, 19-12-9. Home ice record: 14-4-3. The Kings have the 8th best GA/G and are currently in fourth in the Pacific Division, behind the Ducks, Sharks, and the Canucks. The last time the Rangers saw the Kings they were lifting the Stanley Cup and skating around the ice in bliss.
- The San Jose Sharks, 21-14-5. Home ice record: 10-6-2. The Sharks are without face of the franchise Joe Thornton who was recently put on the IR. However, they still have the seventh best power play in the league with 21.8% and are in third place in the Pacific Division.
We also know that the recently re-signed Cam Talbot is going to get the nod in one of three California games, and it's safe to assume that it will either be on the 7th against the Ducks or on the 8th against the Kings. Two of Talbot's last three starts have been shutouts and when he has gone in for the Rangers he always gives them a chance to win.
After their road trip in California, the Rangers' next four games are against the Islanders, Bruins, Blue Jackets, and Penguins. In other words, there isn't an easy game on the horizon for quite some time, and the red hot Rangers are going to have to fight tooth and nail for every point they can manage to get. Six of the next seven games are on the road (the Rangers host the Islanders at MSG on January 13th), which makes this next stretch of games all the more difficult for the Blueshirts.
Thankfully, the Rangers are presently playing some of the best hockey we have seen out of them in a long time. The power play is clicking, goals are coming from all over the lineup, Chris Kreider has goals in back to back games, and Henrik Lundqvist has been lights-out. The Rangers are 9-1-0 in their last ten games, although like most teams the Rangers' 8-6-1 road record is more than a bit underwhelming. If ever you could pick a time for the Rangers to go into a tough stretch like this you might want to pick this very moment. The team is healthy, they're firing on all cylinders, and you can see their comfort and excitement after goals, wins, and in the locker room. The Rangers are feeling good right now. They feel confident. They feel like they can beat anyone, and that is a very powerful thing for a hockey team to feel and believe.
So what can we reasonably expect out of the California road trip? Out of the next seven games? The Rangers are currently a single point behind the Capitals for third place in the Metropolitan Division, but they do have two games in hand. Washington's next four games are against the Maple Leafs, Flyers, Red Wings, and the Avalanche, which sounds like a dream compared to the Rangers' schedule. Do the Rangers have what it takes to finally overtake the Capitals even with the staunch competition that is waiting for them out West? Will we see Kreider continue to score?
What happens over the next seven games could very well have a huge impact on what kind of team the Rangers are. Are they a good team with some big players that is playing great, or are they truly a power in the East that has what it takes to pick up crucial wins and points over the next seven games? The answers start coming on the 7th at 10:30 against Ryan Getzlaf and the Ducks.
Let's go Rangers.