When the Rangers returned home two weeks ago after spending nearly a month on the road, their season had already reached a crossroads. They were 3-6 but beginning to compete, and with seven of their next nine games at home, it was high time to start banking some wins.
Eight games into the homestand, the Rangers have done exactly what they needed to do to breathe life back into this season. They won three of four for consecutive weeks, picking up 12 points in 14 games to vault themselves up the Metropolitan Standings like Carl Hagelin skating downwind.
Derek Stepan has helped rejuvenate the Rangers’ offense.
When they opened play at home on October 28th, the Rangers were seventh out of eight in their division and eight points behind the first-place Penguins. After a Sunday night win over the Florida Panthers, they have climbed up four rungs on the divisional ladder and closed the gap on the Penguins to four points.
The fastest way to make up ground on the teams ahead of you, of course, is to beat them when you have the chance. And the Rangers, who were staring up at the Blue Jackets, Islanders, Hurricanes and Penguins when this homestand began, completed a clean sweep of those divisional rivals to put the former three in their rearview mirror. And the Penguins are in their sights.
And it’s no distant sighting. No, the Penguins, despite winning 11 of their first 15, are right there in front of the Rangers, just beyond their grasp but well within their reach. The Penguins may have outran the Blueshirts in October, but the Rangers have evened the pace. And remember: when these two teams lined up to drag race last week at The Garden, the Rangers revved their engines and left them in the dust.
That game, in fact, is a tidy microcosm of the Rangers’ turnaround. They pumped in five goals on Marc-Andre Fleury while surrendering just one of their own. Back when the team was traversing the West Coast, it was often the other way around: over their nine game road trip, the Rangers averaged 1.67 goals/game and 3.67 goals against/game.
Since returning home, those numbers have changed dramatically. Over the past eight games, they are averaging 3 goals for and 1.63 goals against/game. Sunday night against the Panthers was the first time in nine games that the Rangers allowed more than two goals.
Another recent trend exemplified against the Penguins? Scoring depth. The Rangers got goals from five different players that night, this after relying almost exclusively on Brad Richards in the season’s early goings. Now, 17 games in, there are 15 Rangers who have lit the lamp this year. (And Rick Nash is not one of them!)
Then there was Lundqvist, who kicked out 28 of 29 shots against Sidney Crosby and Co. to send the Penguins home thinking what the hell do we have to do to beat this guy? Many of Lundqvist’s saves, especially in the first ten minutes when the Rangers were on their heels, were of that dramatic type that elicits cheers of “Hen-Reek!” from the Garden crowd. After struggling through October, the Rangers’ best player has turned things around of late, surrendering just nine goals in his last six starts. You knew he would.
You knew they all would, from Ryan McDonagh to Derek Stepan, from Mats Zuccarello to Brian Boyle. You knew, with a new coach behind the bench and a new system on the ice, it was only a matter of time.