Friday, February 11, 2011

Regaining Perspective: Rangers Season About Much More than Wins and Losses

Andy Marlin/Getty Images
The degree to which tonight’s game matter for the New York Rangers might just depend on what the focus of this season is really about.  If the season is about making the playoffs and trying to somehow win a championship, then tonight is likely seen as a huge game for the Blueshirts.  If, on the other hand, this season was always about developing the young players for the future and thinking this season was a year early, then there is still the bigger picture to consider and the success the year has been already to focus on.  What has gotten lost over this five game losing streak is that big picture.  It is a natural thing to be upset that the team is struggling, but all teams go through slumps.  The difference truly is the expectation level that is causing the fans to get up on the ledge with the inclination to jump ship.
When the season began, I would bet, most Rangers’ fans, if they were realistic with themselves, expected this team to either battle for one of the last three playoff spots, or just miss the extra season.  Don’t look now, but that is exactly where the Rangers are right now.  Despite this five game skid, the team is still in seventh place with a three point lead on eighth and four points inside the playoffs in the East.  Reality is most of the teams behind the Rangers have been unable to take advantage of the recent slide, except for the Sabres who have gotten themselves in the race.  The more important reality for me though is that none of those teams matter because it is about what the Rangers have done and will do.
As with anything else in life, expectations change.  That is what is at the heart of the reaction to the five game winless streak.  As Rangers fans, we have seen our share of five game losing streaks and before it began likely expected to see more this season.  What happened was in the first half of the year, the long losing streaks never came; the team always found a way to stop them at three games or less.  The fact that the team could shut down the bad play and respond with a result created that expectation.  The fact that the team has consistently found a way to battle back in third periods and pull out wins, created an expectation that leaves fans shocked when they do not complete the comeback.  Add to that the success the team had in hanging on while all these key parts were missing and it is unfathomable to see them struggle at possibly the healthiest point they have had all year.
This team has shown too much heart, too much character for this to continue and so I expect they will turn it back around, and make the playoffs, but that is not what is important for me this year.  I am not here to say that I do not care about making the playoffs because more hockey for the team I follow, the team I love is always something I wish for, but what I am saying is regardless of playoffs/no playoffs, deep run or first round exit, the 2010-11 season has been the most successful one for my money in years.
When we get some perspective on the year as a whole, then we can step back and realize all that has been accomplished in the first 56 games in total to see what the last 26 will work themselves out.  The team has formed an identity as a tough team to play and more importantly one that never gives up on a game.  It is those two things right there that have keyed the overall team success and what is making fans so bewildered that the breaks are not going for the team right now.
On the individual level there is so much to be proud of with this team.  Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky have taken strides to the next level on and off the ice.  The team is getting huge contributions from four rookies (Stepan, Zuccarello, Sauer, McDonagh) who are showing night in and night out that they belong on this level.  Brian Boyle has taken a giant leap from a journeyman type player to a team leader, both in how he plays the game and sticking pucks in the net.  Brandon Prust has had his warrior mentality wear off on this locker room and made a statement that he is part of the core of this franchise.
There have certainly been disappointments this year on an individual level, but sometimes we, certainly myself included, get lost in focusing on the ones who are failing to meet expectations than praising those who are exceeding them.  This team while struggling is certainly exceeding what the initial expectations were and we should all keep that in mind before we pull the fire alarm because we lost sight of what the real goals of this season were. 
As this Rangers’ team has fought all season, I expect to see that fight tonight in Atlanta, and win or lose the focus for me will be on the effort this team has brought all year and the development of these players for the future.  If the team continues in their fight and the young core continues to develop, then the score at the end of the night does not matter because the team, the organization is still moving in the right direction.