The New York Rangers will not begin their 2012 postseason campaign until Thursday when they host the Ottawa Senators at Madison Square Garden for game one of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. Typically, not until after a team is eliminated, or never eliminated for one lucky club, from the playoffs is when one would assess their season as a whole. For the 2011-12 New York Rangers, however, their success can be analyzed before their quest for the Stanley Cup even begins, and that’s a testament to how much progress they’ve actually made as a franchise in just a year’s span. Regardless of what happens beyond April 12, this has been one special year for the Broadway Blueshirts.
No one, and I repeat, no one had the New York Rangers finishing the season atop the Eastern Conference and second in the entire National Hockey League with a 51-27-7 record and 109 points. If they tell you otherwise, they are bluffing majorly I guarantee you. As per usual, the Rangers were anticipated to just barely survive a roller coaster season that had them finishing in either the seventh or eighth spot in the Conference. Many thought it would again come down to the final week of the season for the team’s playoff fate to be decided, just as it was on the final day of the regular season in 2011.
But, despite all odds against them, a semi-talented Rangers roster was able to take the League by surprise and become a dominant force that climbed to the top in the first quarter of the season and never looked back. Since their 3-3-3 start to the year in October, this team excelled for long stretches of time, through extraneous hype due to their participation in the Winter Classic and HBO’s 24/7, through the absence of key players at all times, and through the pressure that comes along with being in the League’s spotlight as a top team.
To head coach John Tortorella’s credit, he swore from day one that no distraction would be allowed to grab hold of the team’s focus and veer them off the road to success. That was a promise that he and his squad kept throughout the whole season, as they repeatedly attributed their success to the way in which they were able to maintain focus and determination. Or, as they often referred to it, "swagger". Nothing fazed these relentless Rangers; not even a two-goal deficit in one of the League’s biggest stages in front of a dominant Philadelphia crowd on January 2.
Focus and determination certainly played a big role in the strides the franchise made this year, but there is obviously more to the story than just mentality. You must also take into consideration that a year ago the Blueshirts were on life support before managing to squeak into the playoffs with help from the Tampa Bay Lightning on the final day of the regular season. A year later they were able to make the most colossal jump that they could’ve possibly imagined by securing first place in the East in the final week of the season.
The most amazing part about that? They did so with only one single major addition in Brad Richards over the summer. Other than that, every other player on the active roster was in the Rangers’ possession in one way or another heading into training camp, save for Mike Rupp and Anton Stralman. Whether you’d prefer to admit it or not, GM Glen Sather deserves a tremendous pat on the back for that.
The Rangers were able to do this through the incorporation of homegrown talent in the forms of Carl Hagelin, Stu Bickel, Ryan McDonagh and Michael Del Zotto all breaking out and having standout seasons behind the guys who had already been around the block a few times. Today’s depth in the NHL is often measured by your youth and how much of it you have, and in that respect, the Rangers made immense progress this year.
You also cannot neglect the outstanding performances of veterans such as Marian Gaborik, Henrik Lundqvist, Ryan Callahan and Dan Girardi - all of whom had career years.
Nonetheless, Glen Sather stuck to the gameplan, with obvious commitment from John Tortorella (ironically it may have been the other way around but we have no way of definitely telling), by growing through youngsters the organization had already possessed. They took on no regretful contracts and made no regretful transactions even at the trade deadline, and simply stayed the course.
By staying the course, they went from eighth place to first place in just one year. When you look at it that way, the sky is the absolute limit for the New York Rangers franchise moving forward.
As a lifelong Rangers aficionado myself, I have never been this excited about the future of the team.... ever. Whether they make it to the finals or get ousted by the Ottawa Senators in the first round, I simply will not be disappointed in the team’s overall progress in 2011-12. They are on track to constructing a team that will be competing with the higher-ups of the League for many years to come if they stick to the path that they are currently riding extremely smoothly on.
A few necessary additions and subtractions will be made over the offseason I’m sure, and if they are the correct ones, this team will be even more suited to battle in 2012-13 than they were this season. A Stanley Cup, or at least an attempted legitimate run at the Stanley Cup, is in this team’s near future.
The way I see it, what needed to be done in 2011-12 has been done and completed. Where the postseason many take the Rangers is an added bonus that the fans should enjoy and appreciate. Again, no one had them entering the playoffs as the top dog in the Eastern Conference, but here they are, doing just that beginning on Thursday. They are way ahead of schedule.
All there is left to do is sit back and enjoy the most thrilling time of year for hockey fans. And remember, no matter what happens beyond this point, 2011-12 was a major success for the New York Rangers, and the best is still yet to come.