With the Olympic break just five days away for NHL teams, the Rangers may be inclined to coast towards the weekend. But to make their January surge count, the Blueshirts must buckle up and sprint through this first week of February.
It’s a character test for a team that’s played its best hockey of the season in the past month, a chance for them to validate what they accomplished during January. The Rangers are 10-4-1 in their past 15, 14-5-1 in their past 20, and are now settling into a pattern of three wins for every loss.
If they continue like that, the Blueshirts will be a lock for the playoffs before the stretch run even ensues. They’re already up to second in the Metro and sixth in the East, and have the type of sustainable point production that many teams around them do not. Only Pittsburgh and Boston have more regulation/overtime wins than the Rangers, who aren’t relying on those unearned “Bettman Points” to keep themselves afloat.
Around the league, other teams are starting to take notice. Where in December the Rangers were wounded prey, a chance for an easy two points, they are now predators of the East and a symbol of power. There’s a target on the team’s back the way there is on the biggest beasts of the forest, the Rangers suddenly a team that everyone wants a crack at.
So the Blueshirts will have to ratchet things up this week if they wish to continue their winning ways. Brad Richards noted as much after practice Monday morning.
“Mentally we’re going to have to bear down, take it as a challenge because in the month of January we were one of the hottest teams in the league, and there is responsibility that comes with that success,” explained the Rangers alternate captain.
Richards is right. The Rangers, by virtue of their sustained success over the past month, are now a benchmark of sorts for other teams in the league. For much of the first half of the season, the Blueshirts were the ones trying to measure up, trying to assert themselves against the NHL’s elite. Now, they are the yardstick itself.
That’s how the Rangers’ character will be tested. This week, probably for the first time all year, they’ll experience life as a Cup contender, a never-let-up existence that teams like the Blackhawks, Penguins and Bruins know all about. True contenders are the ever hunted, and the ever hunted cannot afford to let down their guard.
What makes this week especially interesting for the Rangers is the competition they’ll face. Sandwiched around a game against the Oilers on Thursday are tilts against the Avalanche (Tuesday) and Penguins (Friday), two legitimate Cup contenders themselves.
Patrick Roy’s Avalanche have won eight of their last 10, while the Penguins are always on some streak or another, and will likely welcome the Rangers into town on Friday having won 17 of their past 21. (I haven’t checked the numbers on this, but it just feels like a safe bet.) A look at the standings shows the Penguins at first in the East and the Avalanche at fifth in the high-flying West. (With 75 points, the Avs would rank second in the East.)
While the Penguins and Avalanche might not be “measuring themselves” against the Rangers, then, they’ll be eager to swat the challenger away. This is especially true of the Penguins, who, all year long it seems, are busy brushing back the proletariat, never genuinely concerned with things but always provoked enough to show up and play. This week, it is the Rangers who have caught their eye and the Penguins will be ready on Friday.
For the Rangers, the seeming message is to stick to the plan. If they keep doing what they’ve been doing, they’ll continue to have success. And in terms of effort, that’s absolutely true. The Rangers showed a playoff-like compete level against the Devils and Islanders last week, and walked away with three wins in three games.
But when it comes to the X’s and O’s, to their tactical approach, the Rangers will have to display some flexibility. Their winning ways of late have invited teams across the league to look at what they’re doing, to break the code to their sudden success.
“Teams now are scouting us, they’re seeing how we’re scoring, so we’re going to have to bear down,” Richards added post-practice Monday.
If the Rangers – and especially the forwards – turn to the same tricks that paved the way for a resurgent January, they may find them less effective. Knowing what to expect, the opposition will be ready.
Instead of looking to set up Benoit Pouliot, Mats Zuccarello may have to start shooting the puck himself. Instead of deferring to Rick Nash, Derek Stepan may have to start leading the rush up ice. The adjustments facing the team, then, aren’t so much systemic as they are creative. Good teams are all adept at improvising, at making changes on the fly, and the Rangers will surely be tested in this regard in the coming week.
It begins Tuesday night at The Garden, where the Rangers will play the first of three games in four nights. It’s the final push before a two-and-half-week break, at which point the non-Olympians can put their feet up and take a breath. But until then, the Rangers need to keep their gaze on the day at hand and their guns up and ready, for this team now runs with the hunted.