On January 21, 2012, the New York Rangers gave notice to the rest of the NHL that they had arrived.
Just three weeks prior in the Winter Classic, the Atlantic Division was alerted that the Blueshirts were a legitimate contender and not going away anytime soon, as they took down the Flyers to continue their unbeaten streak against their Philadelphia foes for the season. But it was on the Saturday of January 21 that the Rangers established their dominance. With most of the sports loving world caught up in the NFL’s playoffs at the time, the top two teams in the NHL's Eastern Conference faced off at the midpoint of the year. The All-Star game was a week away and the Rangers headed up to Boston to face the Stanley Cup Champion Bruins for a matinee match. A win would give New York first place overall for the first time in 2012, and the game certainly lived up to its expectations. The two Original Six clubs found themselves heading to overtime after a hard fought, tight checking, sometimes chippy match, or in other words, a typical Rangers-Bruins duel. A boarding major taken by Andrew Ference in extra-time led to a last second, third try put back by Marion Gaborik for the win.
First place, the number one seed; this was unfamiliar territory for the franchise and its diehards. One-goal wins were already commonplace for a team that struggled on a nightly basis to separate themselves from lesser opponents, but becoming the measuring stick of every other franchise in the Conference means you need to bring it every night. There are no easy ones. There are no flat starts that can be overcome. This trend of tight games, which John Tortorella’s system had a huge part in, continued throughout the balance of the season and on into the playoffs as we are all aware. Game after game of having to play ‘playoff’ hockey, where every shift and every rush can affect the outcome of the game will exhaust a team (not to mention the fan base consuming vast quantities of Tums). I think we all saw how this eventually catches up on you.
Now I know what you are saying; the Rangers had no real secondary scoring, they played the style they had to and were the better team almost every night. You couldn’t be more correct. This team vastly exceeded expectations to the point the ‘magical’ cliché was brought out on a regular basis. The system that coach Tortorella employed, and the players on this squad managing to continuously dovetail, allowed for this magic to occur. The problem (aside from a bounce here and a bounce there) was that they ran out of gas.
Enter Rick Nash. Secondary scoring? How about primary scoring! The 2012-2013 (I know…assuming) New York Rangers will undoubtedly have a different look. Nash, along with playoff rookie phenom Chris Kreider, changes the entire dynamic of the the top six. It is fun to play the line guessing game in August but we all know Torts will mix and match as he sees fit to get guys going or find what works on a shift by shift basis. Assuming (there’s that word again) Marian Gaborik recovers on time and is back in the lineup by early December, there will be quite a few more goals being scored and certainly an improvement on the power play from last season. This improvement will assuredly open up some of these close games, closing out hope in lesser opponents and allowing a more balanced defensive rotation.
Think what Marty Biron’s presence did for Hank. Rested throughout the season, Lundqvist was able to have a Vezina year and was fresh come playoffs. Without putting too much pressure on one or two players, this jump in offensive talent from last season’s team may just allow Torts to open things up enough for a few nights where the Rangers can allow their fans to unclench their fists and maybe even relax enough to smile a bit midway through the third period.
The signing of Rick Nash did one other thing, though. Something that as fans we are in unfamiliar territory with and will be forced to get used to, as this team is built to last. That something is being the measuring stick for the League. The team improved one of its major weaknesses and perhaps will not have to play the grind it out, one goal, playoff hockey for 82 (yeah I know) regular season games. But what it did was put a different type of pressure on the team. One thing has not changed since that cold January afternoon, however, and that's the bulls-eye on the back of our beloved Blueshirts. It has only grown larger. The challenge for this young and talented team is now to handle that pressure on a nightly basis.
** Follow John Schlichting on Twitter: @NYR1579 **