New York Rangers validated in Chicago

The New York Rangers have been playing much better hockey lately – only with very little to show for it. Wednesday night in Chicago, against the defending champion Blackhawks, they finally put a stamp on their second-half surge.

They beat the NHL’s best team in one of the NHL’s most impregnable strongholds; the Blackhawks hadn’t lost in regulation in the United Center since October. The Rangers themselves hadn’t won in Chicago since 2000, a season they would rather forget anyway.

But the win on Wednesday was one to remember.

It was a culmination of sorts for the Rangers, a moment of plugging in the right numbers and finally getting the desired result. Too often this year, it’s seemed, the Rangers have pushed all the right buttons and watched the calculator spit out the wrong answer. For how often the team has played “well enough to win”, they ought to be a whole lot higher in the standings.

That’s why Carl Hagelin dropped to his knees in celebration after staking the Rangers to a 3-2 lead late in the third period. And that’s why Henrik Lundqvist gave a kingly pump of the fist six frantic minutes later, when this big win was finally in the books. For the first time in a long time, the outcome was true to the output.

Carl Hagelin’s late goal lifted the Rangers to a memorable win over the Blackhawks.

There were games to point to, before the one in Chicago, to suggest the Rangers were starting to find themselves. A strong second period in Tampa Bay resulted in a 4-3 win over the Lighting in late December. A dominant showing in Toronto the following weekend saw the Rangers blow out the Maple Leafs. But nothing says you’re playing well quite like a road win over the Defending Champs.

And it wasn’t just that they got two points – it’s that they earned two points. The Rangers skated with the high-flying Blackhawks from the start, and fully deserved the result that came their way. The responded to the home team’s speed with speed of their own, coming right at the best team in hockey the way the best team in hockey is used to coming right at everyone else.

20 minutes in, the Rangers had jumped out to a 2-0 lead. (Since noting a need to stiffen up in the game’s early stages after an ugly loss last Friday in Pittsburgh – in hockey speak, “to have better starts” – Wednesday made it three straight games in which the Rangers have dictated play in the first period.)

The second goal came with Chicago’s Brandon Bollig in the penalty box, marking the eighth time in the past 11 games that the Rangers have scored on the power play. The extra-man unit now ranks sixth in the NHL with a 21% conversion rate, a remarkable turnaround for a team who nearly came to be defined by its struggles on the power play over the past three years.

But under the guidance of assistant coach Scott Arniel, the brain behind the power play, the Rangers have turned a limitation into an asset. When Mike Sullivan was running the man advantage, the Rangers could hardly be counted on to gain the zone; now, they’re generating chances with vending machine reliability.

In fact the last time the Rangers power play felt the way it does now was 2005-06, when the extra-man unit finished eighth in the league, and, you might remember, Jaromir Jagr pumped out 24 power play goals. That success was predicated on one   man and his wrist shot; this year’s success has come by committee. (Well, two committees, and right now, the second one may be better than the first.)

The Blackhawks came hard though in the second period, and wiped out the Rangers’ lead before the ten-minute mark. In a rodeo, Bollig’s game-tying goal would have marked the Blueshirts being bucked from the bull, at which point the rider is supposed to pick himself up and dash out of the ring.

But the Rangers, to their credit, got right back on. They held on for dear life through the rest of the second, and made it to the locker room not further wounded. When they came out for the third, they grabbed the damn thing by the horns.

They came at the ‘hawks on the rush and on the forecheck, from the point and from behind the goal, doing everything they could to get the next goal. 14 minutes later, after a number of golden opportunities had been turned aside by goalie Corey Crawford, Hagelin put the Rangers back ahead. For good.

It was a mission accomplished for the Rangers, and you could tell, by Hagelin’s reaction first and by Lundqvist’s later, how much it meant to them. They know they’ve been playing well recently; they can feel it. But they needed validation – as a student does when he checks his addition with a calculator. They needed something tangible and real, something more than a qualitative eye test, to confirm what they already knew.

They finally got it Wednesday night, and now the Rangers have it on authority: they’re playing well. They are 6-2-1 in their last nine and up to third in the Metro. But now comes the hard part.

For the Rangers are back at The Garden Friday night, where they have struggled all season long, to open up a four-game homestand. (Their 14 road wins lead the league; their eight home wins rank second-to-last.) But they’ll have to figure things out there at some point, and at what better time than now, with the team looking good and knowing it, and unafraid to stay in the ring.