The New York Rangers only have 15 games remaining on the regular season schedule before the postseason commences, and seven of those remaining 15 games will be played at Madison Square Garden in the team’s upcoming homestand that will stretch over two weeks. Having lost three straight games, the Blueshirts only hold the first place spot in the Eastern Conference by four points over the Pittsburgh Penguins at the moment. The stats speak for themselves; this homestand will heavily impact where the Rangers finish at the end of the regular season.
Noted in last night’s 4-3 loss to the Blackhawks, in which the Rangers once again forfeited a lead in the third period, fatigue is setting in on this team and affecting their game. As we know, head coach John Tortorella implements an up-tempo, hard-working system here in New York, and it requires the very most out of the players each and every night. After months of putting forth that work ethic on a consistent basis, there was no doubt that it would eventually catch up with them. We just didn’t expect that to happen this early.
And don’t think that it is just physical fatigue that has taken a toll on this Ranger team. Mentally, too, they have been worked to the max this season. They began the year in Europe, they immediately had to go on a Western Canada road swing upon returning to the States, then had HBO cameras following them around 24/7 before it all came together on January 2 when they went up against the Flyers in the Winter Classic at Citizens Bank Park. That’s quite the list of potential distractions that could’ve buried this team early. Coach Tortorella prevented that from happening to his squad by keeping them mentally focused for extended periods of time.
It’s become quite clear that they have lost that focus as of late.
Taking all of this into consideration, the Rangers really couldn’t have asked for two weeks home in New York at a better time. There are 11 games left on the schedule for March alone, and eight of those will be played in Manhattan. This is the perfect opportunity for the Blueshirts to catch up on rest, restart and get back on track. They need to regain the confidence and dominance they were playing with in the months of November and December when they were the hottest team in the National Hockey League. It would put them in an ideal mental state going into the playoffs. However, it’s not going to be easy to reach that level of play again. It’s going to require extreme amounts of focus, determination and commitment, all of which the Rangers have lacked as of late.
While the Rangers have been falling, there are multiple teams in the East, and their division, that have been gaining points every night. The Rangers, no doubt, can feel the breathing on their necks.
The Pittsburgh Penguins, for example, have won eight straight games and nine of their last ten. They are just four points back of the Blueshirts right now and aren’t showing any signs of slowing down whatsoever. Not to mention the return of captain Sidney Crosby may be just around the corner, and obviously that will give Pittsburgh another huge boost. In my opinion, the Penguins are the Rangers’ biggest threat right now.
Philadelphia has also won four straight games and seven of their last ten, and although they are still eight points back from New York, they’re working their way up. My fear is that if the Penguins manage to surpass the Rangers and take first in the East, the streaking Flyers may heat up even more and take fourth. That would put the Rangers out of contention for home ice advantage, which they absolutely do not want happening. But, then again, it would be a stretch for that to occur.
The bottom line here is that the Rangers have a limited amount of time to turn things around before they fall into a deep hole. The pressure is on right now and this team is facing a level of adversity that they have yet to face all season long. This seven-game homestand could make or break them, so they must take advantage beginning tomorrow when they host the Islanders for the final time this year.