The New York Rangers return to work Thursday, reporting for a late afternoon practice after the five-day league-mandated bye week. A home game against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Friday and a road contest Saturday up in Montreal against the Canadiens quickly follow.
They resume their schedule tied for the third most points in the Metropolitan Division, fourth most in the Eastern Conference, and fifth overall in the entire National Hockey League. Such are the fruits of an extremely successful, if not equally as surprising, first half to the Rangers’ 2016-17 season.
However, now it really gets interesting for the Blueshirts. The calendar has flipped to a new year. The trade deadline and Stanley Cup playoffs are directly ahead.
For a team with real championship aspirations, like the Rangers, the second half of the season is when things turn serious.
Let’s take a look at what lies ahead.
Mark Your Schedule
After an often-times brutal schedule in the first half of the season, the second half is not so ugly for the Rangers. There is one six-games-in-ten-days stretch to close out February, a five-in-eight in March; but really the schedule is not an issue for the Rangers, who, at one point this season, had played upwards of four more games than the majority of the teams in the league.
One negative is that New York has only ten games remaining against Western Conference opponents. Since the Rangers are 14-4-0 against the West, they will miss fattening up in the second half on those teams from the Pacific and Central Divisions.
There is a four-game home stand from Feb. 5-11, all against middling Western Conference clubs; and the annual road trip for three games in California in late March, the club’s lone remaining trip of any distance.
Circle these dates: Jan. 14, Feb. 21 and March 4. Those are three games in a month and a half against the Montreal Canadiens, the team New York would square off against in the first round of the playoffs if the season ended today. Add March 31 and the regular season finale on April 9 to the list, too. The Rangers face the Pittsburgh Penguins twice more, and there could something on the line in those games.
Clean Up Your Mess
You know how, when growing up, mom or dad would order you to “Clean up your mess!”, and usually do so in a stern voice and with hands on hips?
Well, in a way, that’s what Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault needs to do with his club in regards to their slow starts and overall defensive play.
Somehow, someway, this group navigated their own self-inflicted wounds quite well in the season’s first half. No better example is there than their last game before the bye week when the Rangers rallied, on the road, for a 5-4 victory over the league-best Columbus Blue Jackets after spotting the home team leads of 2-0 and 4-1.
However, it’s got to stop; and the sooner the better.
Slow starts. Surrendering the game’s first goal in the first few minutes. Forced to play from behind. Growing sloppy play in their own end of the rink. Poor defensive-zone coverages. Spotty goaltending.
All of those things have been a fairly consistent part of the Rangers’ game, especially as the first half wore on. Simply put, things need to be cleaned up.
Henrik Lundqvist needs to be better between the pipes. No matter how excellent his back up, Antti Raanta, has played, Lundqvist remains the team’s most important player. And for New York to make a run in the post-season, Lundqvist needs to be at the top of his game. He has the second half now to find consistency and a whole other level of play.
The defense corps, in particular Kevin Klein, Dan Girardi and Brady Skjei, need to be a lot better defending in front of their own net. As mom says, clean it up boys!
More consistent help from the forwards, ie: less cheating to go racing the other way down ice for offensive chances, is part of how the Rangers need to collectively clean things up in the second half.
True, this is more about fine-tuning than a complete overhaul. The Rangers are a solid team, but if they legitimately want to make a run for their first Cup in 23 years, then cleaning up in their defensive zone is paramount moving forward.
David Bowie would have been 70 years old on Jan. 8 had he not passed away last year. In keeping with the Bowie theme, the Rangers know that changes are inevitable in the season’s second half.
Players will return from injury, others will be injured. Players will move from line to line, or defense pairing to defense pairing, as Vigneault seeks the perfect combinations. Quite possibly a trade or two will take place before the deadline on Feb. 28.
Such is the rhythm of the season’s second half.
In the immediate future, injured forwards Mika Zibanejad, Rick Nash and Pavel Buchnevich are all getting closer to a return to the Blueshirts lineup. Their re-entries into the lineup will cause line juggling and, likely, a return to the minors for Marek Hrivik and a spot in the press box for the struggling Brandon Pirri.
Marc Staal’s mysterious injury before the break, Larry Brooks of The New York Post says it’s a concussion, is worrisome, and could mean more playing time for Adam Clendening.
As for trades? General manager Jeff Gorton will not sit quietly at the deadline. He has salary cap space to make a significant move if he so desires; but that top-four defenseman he covets may not be available, no matter the cost.
The Metropolitan Division is an absolute beast this season. Four of the top five or six teams in the league take up residence in the Metro, including the Rangers.
It’s going to be a dogfight to see who wins the division and where the other contenders fall in line.
The popular notion is that it best suits the Blueshirts to finish in fourth place so that they cross over into the Atlantic Division for rounds one and two (that would be Cary Price and the Canadiens in the opening round) and avoid the likely bloodbath that will be the Metropolitan Division playoffs.
A team can not play for fourth place, however. And it says here the Rangers are likely going to be the third-place team in the Metro. It is what it is.
And for what it’s worth, the Rangers are 10-5-0 within the division, so far, this season.
Still, keep an eye on all the head-to-head matchups in the division in the second half. It’s going to be quite the ride.