Originally posted on The Rangers Tribune  |  Last updated 1/26/12

The New York Rangers officially hit their midseason break yesterday after defeating the Winnipeg Jets, 3-0, at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday. Some players have left town for a brief vacation, some are sticking around with family and some are obviously headed to Ottawa for the 2012 All-Star Weekend. I, personally, am not leaving for Ottawa until Friday afternoon, so this gives us the opportunity to sort of sit back and reflect on the 2011-12 Rangers season that has been so far. 

With 47 games over and done with, the Blueshirts currently lead the Eastern Conference with a 31-12-4 record and are just a point shy of the league-leading Detroit Red Wings. If I told you that I expected the Rangers to be even remotely close to this position at the All-Star break heading into the season, I would be completely bs’ing you. The team’s success this season has come as a major surprise to me, and still to this day I am in disbelief every time I look on NHL.com and see the Rangers in the number one spot in the East.

I expected improvement this season, no doubt, since the Rangers took some important steps in the right direction last year, but they have managed to turn those steps into leaps. To be honest, I had the Rangers down as being a team that would be back-and-forth between fifth and sixth place in the conference throughout the season – not first and second. I had the Rangers down as being a team that would face some severe struggles on defense and would have to rely on their goaltender. I was also in fear that we would again see the club’s top players disappoint with lackluster play.

For once, though, I am happy to admit that I couldn’t have been more wrong. The Rangers, since their 3-3-3 start in October, have been rapidly ascending through the standings and passing key divisional opponents in the process. Their defense has had its ups and downs, but overall they’ve been pretty solid in front of Henrik Lundqvist (who's also been amazing), even with Marc Staal missing nearly half of the season due to a concussion. And their top players, especially Marian Gaborik, have really stood out in many ways this year.

In all honesty, I don’t think anyone thought that the Rangers would come together and be able to string together multiple five to seven-game winning streaks that would make them the team to beat in the NHL like they’ve done. They’ve been the top dog here on the east coast for a while now, and each team comes into MSG extra amped to be taking on the #1 seed – they see it as a measuring stick game of sorts. Yes, it’s true; other teams are using the Rangers to measure themselves up against and judge where they are at. When was the last time that was happening?

And when you look at all of the players that have been sidelined this season, New York really has been somewhat plagued by injury. That hasn’t been an issue either, though, as they’ve been extremely fortunate to bring in replacements that have performed well. Right off the bat you look at a guy like Carl Hagelin, who probably never would’ve been recalled if it weren’t for injuries to other players. Now, 29 games later, Hagelin is joining the rookie team for All-Star Weekend.

And even John Mitchell has been an impressive replacement, scoring five goals since being recalled from the AHL. Hell, Mitchell has even seen some time on the first line with Marian Gaborik at times this past month. And a similar story is tied to Stu Bickel on defense for the Blueshirts. Many, including myself, questioned the recall of Bickel when it first happened, but he’s been very impressive since day one and has earned himself a roster spot on the team for now.

Come on, I don’t think anyone could have predicted that the Rangers would be able to find replacements in their system that have actually come up and performed at a superior level compared to those they were replacing. Now you are starting to see why the team’s success has come as a surprise to me.

And as much as many of you will not want to admit it, I think head coach John Tortorella deserves a lot of credit for how well the team has responded this season. He’s pushed the right buttons with the right players, and has done an excellent job of maintaining the squad’s focus despite having to face unusual distractions throughout the season. Torts has done an outstanding job as the coach of the Rangers, and that’s why he will be headed to Ottawa to coach one of the All-Star teams this weekend.

Of course, the first half of the season means nothing without a strong second half and finish, so it is crucial that the Rangers continue their winning ways for the next few months into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

But, looking at the season to this point, I will ask again; Did you expect the Rangers to be this successful?

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