New York Rangers set to open crucial stretch of season

You hate to say an 82-game season that stretches from October to April can be defined by nine games in December. You are taught to avoid such inflated talk. But the New York Rangers, who begin a nine-game homestand Saturday against the Devils, may well see their fate determined in the coming weeks.

When the team began the season with nine games on the road – the first five out West – expectations were simple: weather the storm. Come out alive. Because you knew, somewhere down the road, the schedule would even things out. And if the Rangers still had a pulse by then, they could make their push.

The Rangers will need more out of Carl Hagelin over a critical nine game home stand.

Well, that time has come. After knocking the Blueshirts to the mat in October, the schedule now extends them a hand to get back up. The Rangers, to their credit, have rallied on their own, posting a 12-8 record since their 3-6 start. The resurgence has lifted them to third in their division, good enough for a playoff spot come April. Still, the Rangers are not where they want to be.

They are 15-14, 5-5 in their last ten, and have fallen into a rut of inconsistency that’s seen them play one bad game for every good one. They haven’t been more than a game above. 500 at any point this season, and seem strangely comfortable hovering near mediocrity. Each time a path to the head of the pack has emerged, the Rangers have bashfully backed off, as if not so sure they belong.

Again, a lane has opened up. Five of the nine opponents the Rangers will welcome into The Garden over the next 16 days currently hold sub-.500 records, including four the first five. There’s some solid competition on the backend, but the only truly elite teams coming to town are the Penguins and the Wild (kind of). Assuming they earn a split against those two, it’s not unrealistic to think the Rangers can win seven of nine.

Six would be fine, but anything less and the Rangers will have spoiled a golden opportunity. Because given the putrid state of the Metropolitan Division, any team that wins six of nine is likely to burst to the front. After the Penguins, there are five teams clumped within two points of each other and the Metropolitan, suffering from a bruised ego, is begging one of those teams to join Pittsburgh at the top.

It can be the Rangers that climb the ladder. It most certainly can. But they need to start playing with some urgency, with the mindset that they have some catching up to do. They need to imagine this is the Western Conference they’re playing in, where up-and-down hockey doesn’t cut it. Instead of relying on the struggles of the teams around them, the Rangers need to demand more out of themselves.

Could they make it to the playoffs at their current pace? Probably – it’s hard to imagine two teams emerging from the field and setting a higher pace than the one being set right now. 85 points may very well be the magic number for the Metropolitan. But then what?

Do we celebrate a playoff berth only to quickly realize the Rangers aren’t up to snuff? Do we watch the team stumble into the postseason like Brad Richards into training camp last winter, out of shape and unprepared? Do we watch them fold, weak-willed, against a hardened team from the Atlantic? Do we rue another first-round exit?

It’s hard to imagine it anyway else.

To avoid this scenario, the Rangers need to take control of the gears. They can no longer let the season operate itself. They showed some spunk Thursday night in Buffalo after a lethargic early-week loss to Winnipeg, but that can’t leave the team satisfied. With the foundation in place for a winning streak, they need to come to work on Saturday ready to lay the next level.

It’s been a frustrating start for the Rangers, who, with 30 points through 29 games, look nothing like the Cup Contender many pegged them to be in September. But they’ve weathered the storm. They’ve come out alive. And now, the schedule has pushed their season onto the launch pad, ready to blast the Blueshirts off into orbit.

But it’s up to them to grab the opportunity and run with it.