The New York Rangers are 6-7 – 1 game below .500 – and boy does it feel good.
Might they wish, 13 games into the season, they were 7-6 and already over that hump? Might they wish they were 12-1 and right up there with the Colorado Avalanche? You bet, but considering where they were a week or two ago, far from home and far from good, 6-7 is a point of pride.
Chris Kreider finally looks to be with the Rangers for good.
6-7 is the tides changing. It is the skies clearing. It is this uphill battle leveling out and beginning to tilt downhill, the wind at the team’s back for the first time this season. 6-7 is rejuvenation for the Rangers, who are finally starting to resemble the team many thought they could be.
It started last Saturday in Detroit, on the final night of a nine game road trip, when a beleaguered team battled back from a third period deficit to steal one in Hockeytown. People may point to a 2-0 victory over Washington three games prior as the victory that righted the ship, but the Rangers never had to look themselves in the eye that night. And that may be partly why they lost the ensuing two games.
Against the Red Wings though, the Rangers glared into the mirror and demanded more. Sometime between the second and third period, in a tired visitor’s locker room at Joe Louis Arena, a suddenly defiant group resolved to, damn it, win a hockey game. It took a whole lot of guts, a whole lot of character and all 19 players, but the Rangers made good on their pledge. And with that, a team was born.
Sometimes you have to trudge through the valley to climb the mountain. You have to visit the lowest of lows to experience the highest of highs. And though higher successes than an October win over the Red Wings await the Rangers, it’s a checkpoint they had to reach on the way to the top.
They learned in Detroit what a united group is capable of. They learned that when they all take hold of an oar and row together, they’re a pretty formidable crew. And though as hockey players, and as athletes, they all know the power of teamwork quite naturally, they needed to see what it meant for them as a whole. Just how good can we be?
Pretty darn good, if this past week was any indication. The Rangers won three of four, and played the kind of high-energy hockey that is both effective and fun to watch. Even in a 2-0 loss to Montreal, the team put forth an inspired performance spoiled only by the hot hand of Canadiens’ goaltender Peter Budaj. Up until the Habs added a late insurance goal, you just got the feeling the Rangers were going to win.
Such was the case all week long. The following night on Long Island, with the Rangers trailing 2-1 entering the third, the team didn’t panic. They’d been there before. And their commitment to staying within their system, to “playing the right way” as Coach Vigneault likes to say, was rewarded when Ryan McDonagh tied the game on the power play just five minutes into the final frame. A little over twelve minutes later, Benoit Pouliot converted a pretty passing play with Carl Hagelin to lift the Rangers to their second come-from-behind win of the season.
Speaking of the power play, after some early-season struggles the extra-man unit seems to be clicking. The Rangers have scored with the man advantage in each of their past three games, and with sample sizes increasing and averages emerging, the power play is succeeding at above a 20 percent clip. And the fact that they’re doing it without Rick Nash and Ryan Callahan is a testament to AV and his coaching staff.
They were dealt a tough hand from the start, losing the team’s best goal scorer in Nash and top all-around player in Callahan, but they have found the right players and the right combinations to fill the void. And if the Rangers can keep winning without them, the injuries may end up being a blessing in disguise. For just when it looked like Chris Kreider and J.T. Miller were going to be buried again in Hartford, the Rangers were forced to recall them. All they’ve done since – especially Kreider – is cement the fact that they belong.
Kreider has played on the top line since his season debut in Philadelphia (10/24), and has been a force everywhere on the ice. Always a gifted offensive player, he has turned things around at the other end of the rink as well, looking decidedly more aware away from the puck in the defensive zone. His accountability here has translated into more minutes in even-strength situations, and Kreider has made the most of the opportunity. Through six games so far he has two goals and six points, and to the delight – and relief – of Ranger fans, seems to be here for good.
He’s not the only one who’s found his game of late. Henrik Lundqvist has shaken off the early season doldrums to remind everyone why he is the best player on this team. He picked up his second shutout of the season Thursday night against Buffalo, but his sharpest performance thus far came last night against Carolina. Hank made several big saves in the game’s early going to let the Rangers find their footing, and was simply clinical the rest of the way, finishing with 28 saves on 29 shots. His GAA is down to 2.26, his SV% is up to .914, and the numbers will only keep improving: Lundqvist looks primed to enter one of those hypnotic grooves where the puck starts looking like a beach ball.
These are all good signs for the Rangers. But perhaps the best sign of all is the team’s growing fluidity within a new system. After looking alarmingly lost on the ice out west, they appear to be just now grasping the Vigneault Way to Play and the returns have been promising. From the defensemen to the forwards, there is a noticeably higher level of on-ice awareness than there was two weeks ago, when the players looked like they were thinking about what they needed to do and where they needed to be. Now, they’re just doing it, the sign of a hockey team coming into its own.
They’re still 6-7, they’re still below .500 and they’re still far from where they want to be. But they have won three straight and are climbing quickly up the standings in the Metropolitan Division (still hate that). They’re fourth out of eight – an admittedly weak eight – and, for what it’s worth in November, hold at least one game in hand on each of the three teams ahead of them. But as it is November, and the Rangers are just 13 games into an 82-game marathon, they needn’t be looking at the standings. Their gaze should be fixed instead on the mirror in front of them, where, if they continue to play the way they did this week, they’ll like more and more what they see.