A new year is a time for new beginnings and to make changes and improvements. We’ve all made New Year’s Resolutions with good intentions, but most fall by the wayside before February. If you’re a New York Rangers fan, you’re hoping that whatever resolution was made among the team when the calendars were changed lasts a lot longer.
The seeds of better hockey were planted towards the end of last year. The Rangers won four out of their last five to close 2013. A 5-2 flipper-smack by the Penguins resembled the lackluster effort we’ve seen more than fans would have liked from New York this season. But since then, the Rangers have looked like an actual, playoff contending hockey team. The main reasons for this are improved goaltending and consistency.
-Henrik Lundqvist’s struggles this year have been well documented. A 1-4-2 stretch for the Sweden’s top goalie in December gave way to a mini-benching. Since riding the pine, Lundqvist has gone 6-2-1, and has looked a lot more like the netminder the Garden Faithful are used to seeing. It’s not like he’s been having easy nights at the office either. Five times in that stretch, he’s had to make at least 35 saves (4-0-1). The Rangers have ten games remaining before the Olympic break, and I think we’ll see if Lundqvist can continue his winning ways in eight of those contests.
-Consistency in Henrik Lundqvist’ play has already been talked about, but the consistency among the skaters has been the other vital part of the Rangers recent success. The blueline has always been a strong point of the Rangers (even Michael Del Zotto is starting to become less of a defensive liability), and getting a healthy Marc Staal back on New Year’s Eve has made them even deeper. The Rangers defensive pairings have been set for some time now (Ryan McDonagh-Dan Girardi, Staal-Anton Stralman, John Moore-Del Zotto), but having consistent line combinations has escaped the team for most of the season. The top line of Rick Nash, Derek Stepan, and Chris Kreider was set earlier in the season, but the lines below them have been a work-in-progress for the bulk of the season. Thanks to the Rangers finally getting healthy, line combinations have finally been established, and it’s paying off. Ryan Callahan, Brad Richards (who leads the team in scoring with 35 points), and Carl Hagelin form a balanced and productive second line. Mats Zuccarello (tied for the team lead in goals with twelve), Derick Brassard, and Benoit Pouliot play very well together. They’re all are chipping in their share offensively from the third line as well. Brian Boyle, Dominic Moore, and the recently acquired Dan Carcillo (who could form a platoon with the currently injured Derek Dorsett) give the Rangers a tough, defensively-minded fourth line that every team needs.
It may have taken longer than people would have liked, but it seems like the Rangers have finally righted the ship. The Penguins are the clear-cut top team in the Atlantic, but literally every other team in the division is in the mix. Eight points separate the second place Philadelphia Flyers from the last place New York Islanders (this is before Friday night’s Columbus–Washington match-up). If the Rangers make a habit of playing strong hockey in to the Olympic break, it will give them a solid foundation to pick up where they left off in late February.