Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Rangers Schedule: November Nightmare Survived; December Tests Viability

When the season started the thing that stuck out the most about the schedule was the brutal number of games the Rangers would be forced to play in November.  The Rangers would play sixteen games in the course of the month but even that is a little deceiving because they really played fourteen games over just a twenty three day stretch.  This scheduled included four different sets of back-to-back games all of which were then turned into three games in four nights.  Overall the record in the month was a very respectable 9-7, though as John Tortorella said before the game Monday against the Penguins there is huge difference in feel between 10-6 and 9-7.  So, the Rangers won November, giving them their second consecutive winning month and leaving them 14-11-1 on the season, but the question is, now what?

As brutal as the schedule was in November to me this stretch in December will tell more about the hopes and fortunes of the club for the long term than November did.  The brutal stretch of schedule in November led to much discussion towards the end of how tired the team was and maybe the exhaustion was playing a role in the slippage in play at the end of the month.  I know the record does not really support a slippage since they won four of the last six games in the month, but for those who watched all the games I think you would agree that the record is as much a factor of who they were playing as how they were playing.  The Rangers did what they had to do in beating the teams they were supposed to beat, but things like playing one good period instead of three were able to go unpunished against the weaker teams. 

To me December will tell more because they start with four winnable games and only four games over the first nine days of the month so they should get some of their legs back and eliminate the fatigue excuse.  After that will come the toughest stretch of opponents the Rangers have faced this season when they play: @CLB, vs WSH, @Pitt, vs PHX, @PHI, vs TB.  As I have documented over the last two days the Rangers have struggled against the better teams in the league and right now are well over .500 and all six are currently in playoff positions.  Adding to that each of these teams has characteristics that harm the Rangers most notably speed.  The Rangers will close out the month with winnable games against the Islanders and at the Devils. 

The best analogy I can think of right now is the Rangers played a decent opening round, had a good front nine in the second round and now they decide if they make or miss the cut.  Obviously the entire season will not be determined in that six game stretch or the month of games, but it will paint a much clearer picture of the quality of a hockey club the Rangers are in terms of their legitimacy as a playoff caliber team and if maybe they can be a contender for something.  To be considered a playoff team and even a contender I would think they have to take at least 4 of 6 in the games they should win and get 3 of the games against the better teams.  A 7-5 month that would leave them at 21-16-1 through 38 games would give them a good chance at a 90+ point year that it should take to get in.

In order to make that a possibility it will take players who started well to get back into form along with those who have not been in form yet to get there more consistently.  Those who have to pick it up again would include: Dubinsky 2 points in 7; Callahan 2 points in 7; Anisimov 1 point in 9; Frolov 1 point in 9; Fedotenko 1 point in 8; Del Zotto 3 points in 14.  The Rangers need more consistent play from Staal and Girardi who had a few bad games at the end of the month and Gaborik who has been touch and go since coming back.  The only guys really playing well at the end of the month offensively were probably Boyle and Stepan.  They will need the same play from Biron as well as the Lundqvist who showed up the last week of November.  I would expect Henrik to play upwards of 10 or 11 of these games with Biron likely getting one against the Islanders this week and maybe Phx the middle of the month as the other most likely just so he doesn’t go stale. 

So the Rangers should be pleased but not satisfied with the results of November because every two points counts in this league and the minute they get complacent we watch other teams good or bad run right over them.  Right now the Rangers sit in 7th, though for me they are 8th only 3 points up on Boston while Boston has four games in hand, so as pleased as many fans are with how different this year’s start feels to last year realize the competition is better this year.  Also realize aside from the aesthetic differences the team is in virtually the same spot as they were 13-12-1 after 26 last year.  By New Year’s we will know much more if this year really is different than last.