It was a frustrating first half of the season for the Rangers, but by Christmas time there was optimism wrapped inside their misfortune. For despite the unprecedented struggles of Henrik Lundqvist and the curious disappearance of Rick Nash, the Rangers, at 18-18-2, were tied with the Flyers for third place in the Metropolitan Division.
On it’s own, of course, everything looked pretty mediocre. Here was a Stanley Cup contender floundering in a there-for-the-taking Eastern Conference. While the Penguins and Bruins were placing a stranglehold on the conference, the Rangers were simply struggling to stay above water. (The only reason they hadn’t sunk entirely under was because nearly everyone else in the East was flailing at the surface with them.)
But there was an unusual backdrop to the Rangers’ season. Their two best players were nowhere to be found. Nearly everything the team had accomplished up to the Holiday Break was not due to but in spite of Lundqvist and Nash. After a December 23 game against the Maple Leafs, Lundqvist had a save percentage of .905 and goals against average of 2.77. His record was 10-15-2. Nash, meanwhile, had six goals and eight assists.
If the Rangers’ first half was disappointing, for Lundqvist and Nash it was downright doleful. But things were bound to turn around soon – neither Lundqvist nor Nash could struggle this mightily through an entire 82-game season. Once they returned to form, the thinking was, the Rangers would be off and running. And so despite an outwardly bleak picture, things were still bright for the Blueshirts entering the second half.
Now, 13 games later, the revival has finally taken hold. It has been stark, sudden and almost unimaginable. For though it was a certainty that Lundqvist and Nash would ultimately turn things around, it was never expected to happen so definitively.
The smart money was on Lundqvist finding his game, slowly but surely, sometime in the middle of January, and then Rick Nash rediscovering his mojo a little after the Olympics – or some variation of that. Given the way the two had played through December, it would have been foolish to bet on a faster recovery.
In hindsight, it would have been shrewd. For right around New Year’s, a perfect storm of events struck the Rangers and rerouted their season. Suddenly, Lundqvist was playing like that Vezina winner. Rick Nash was playing like that five-time All-Star. Both of them were firing on all cylinders, without waiting for the engine to heat up. The revival happened all at once.
Beginning with the Rangers’ 4-3 win over the Lightning on December 29 – a game in which Nash opened the scoring and Lundqvist kicked out 37 shots – the two stars for the Blueshirts have shined with a fluorescent glow. Lundqvist, over this stretch, boasts a record of 7-2-2, a .937 save percentage and 1.81 goals against average. Nash, not to be outdone, has scored eight goals in 11 games, after notching just six through his first 22. And true to plan, the Rangers have taken off with them.
They entered play on the 29th in fifth place in the Metro and tenth overall in the East with 38 points. Nine wins and 19 points later, the Rangers have moved up to second in the Metro and fifth in East as they begin to create some separation between the teams below them. If this dominant run of play continues up to the Olympic Break, the Rangers will enter the final stretch of the season with an iron grip on a playoff spot.
With Lundqvist and Nash now leading the way, the Rangers finally fit the vision they created for themselves back in September. They are, as Dennis Green would say, who we thought they were. And more important, they are who Alain Vigneault thought they could be.
Nash and the Rangers are scoring goals because they are stretching the ice and taking chances. They are stretching the ice and taking chances, mind you, because Lundqvist is holding the fort at the other end. Remember, it was during the nadir of Hank’s struggles that Vigneault suggested the Rangers might have to rein things in. Now, with the King back to his old self, Vigneault is letting his team fly.
Together, Nash and Lundqvist have allowed a coach to implement his system. And together, they have revitalized this Rangers season, which is the kind of thing that players of their stature are supposed to do.