Friday, December 31, 2010

Rangers Exceed Expectations To Close 2010; Contenders in 2011?

When this season started I was among those who believed that with the New York Rangers basically bringing the same team back from last season that not much would change.  The expectation was that the team makes another run for one of the bottom three playoff spots and either squeaks in and loses early or misses the playoffs entirely.  At least for now I can gladly say that I was wrong.  Through 39 games this team has shown that even with largely the same cast of characters you can get a different set of results.  What they have also shown is that the reshaping of the team that has been going on over the past number of seasons to more homegrown talent both in the NHL and throughout the system has been well worth it.  The reality is I expected the Rangers to be like they are right now, but not for another year or two when some more of that talent was infused into the lineup.  So with the Rangers changing the timetable on how quickly they would improve their play I have to change mine and wonder if this team can be a serious threat or even a contender this season.

Over the years I have had a somewhat jaded sense about the team built in because this team has consistently built up expectations and as soon as you believe the other shoe drops and you are left holding nothing but disappointed dreams.  I have said it on more than a few occasions in looking at individual games that this team is different than those in the past because there is more consistency and substance to how they are going about their work this season.  I am not talking about the results column because lord knows they have had their share of hot streaks in previous years, but I talking about how they have built a legitimate foundation based on their identity as a hockey TEAM.

If we are to be perfectly honest on sheer talent alone, especially heading into the year, the Rangers are probably in the bottom portion of the league.  Add to that the significant time lost to Marian Gaborik, Vinny Prospal, Chris Drury and now Ryan Callahan along with Gaborik’s inconsistency and Michael Del Zotto’s struggles and if you just knew those facts back in October you would guess this team was down amongst the Panthers and Maple Leafs right now, and I would be right there with you.  Instead what you have is a team that ranks 9th in goals for (3.05); 8th in goals against (2.55); 7th in goal differential (+20); tied for 4th in wins (22); and tied for the best winning percentage both when leading (16-0-0) and trailing (4-8-2) after 2 periods.

All of those things speak to the Rangers playing over their heads and that at some point it must end because the talent level does not show an ability to support the results the team has had.  Normally I would agree with you, but this team, this year has shown too many times that they do “find a way” for me to discount their ability to continue to do it. 

The biggest thing having an identity has done for this club is provide them with a system and style to fall back on when things are not working and that has given them more consistency within and between games.  That is not to say that this team does not drive you crazy with a lazy period or lapses within games, but what they have found a way to do is always bounce back within and between games.  If you had told me that 38 games in the Rangers would have only a single losing streak that reached as much as three games I would have called you crazy, but it is the reality.  The reason for that is this team truly has become a next man up mentality and when someone goes down or someone else is struggling at the moment the next guy takes it upon himself to get the team going and there are no better examples of that then all the guys having career years at this point. 

Brandon Dubinsky is playing at an elite level this year and at multiple points this season has put this team on his back and carried them for stretches.  Each time it has looked like he was out of gas or just backing himself off to his old ways he has then exploded back into this new form.  Add to his new level the exceptional improvements both Brian Boyle and Brandon Prust have made to their games not just with their production offensively but how they typify this grinding style and you find the Rangers two most consistent forces on the year.  Artem Anisimov has taken the next step in his and what can you say about the two rookies as Derek Stepan shows his knack for the big moment over and over again and Michael Sauer will never kill you flash but he will crush you with consistency as arguably the Rangers third best defender this season.

None of this is to say that this team does not have problems or holes or lack elite skill because all of those things exist in each facet of the game other than in the net where Lundqvist is still among the best in the league.  What it does say though is that when that many guys up their level it can make up for when certain guys slip and the hope becomes that they can maintain their ups while guys like Gaborik, Del Zotto, even Frolov find their stride and if that happens along with adding in a talent like Zuccarello that talent on paper seems to look a lot better very quickly.  Add that to the fact that the style and identity the Rangers have is made for playoff hockey leads me to believe that if the cards fall right this team can make a legit run this year.  No, I am not planning a parade, but a couple series wins might not be out of the question.  If that happens the future will look even brighter than it already did because they will be adding the next wave of Rangers homegrown talent to a pretty sturdy foundation built around a core of Lundqvist, Staal, Dubinsky, Callahan, Stepan, Anisimov, Prust, Boyle, Girardi, Sauer.

Maybe it is just drinking a lot of kool-aid on New Year’s Eve but what this team has shown in 2010 makes me believe 2011 will be a great year in Rangers hockey.