The New York Rangers impressive overall performance in Sunday afternoon’s 4-1 victory over the Washington Capitals could not have come at a more significant time. Game number 24 marked the halfway point of the shortened 2013 NHL season, and after all the starts and stops the Blueshirts have endured during the first half, their recent surge brings optimism that the half-empty glass of only two weeks ago is now half-full and rising quickly.
Sitting at hockey .500 at 8-8-2 on February 26th following a fourth straight defeat, and clearly at the crossroads of their season, the Rangers received a huge lift when Rick Nash returned to the lineup following a four game absence. Since then they have won five of six, Nash has been dominant and all of a sudden a team that wouldn’t recognize itself if it looked into a mirror seems to have pulled together just in time to make a second half run.
Can the Rangers sustain their recent success and get themselves back into the conversation regarding the Eastern Conference’s upper echelon? A few things have to happen for New York to be considered the legitimate Stanley Cup contender most thought they would be when the season commenced. With Nash proving to be a bonafide superstar on a nightly basis, all eyes shift to Marian Gaborik. The Rangers ‘other’ sniper has seemed lost and low on confidence since the first week of the season. Lately there have been some signs, albeit infrequent ones, that Gaborik is coming out of his funk. If number 10 can find his shot and regains his scoring touch, New York will be extremely difficult to defend with two dangerous scoring lines. Brad Richards is a similar case. Another veteran whose game fell off a cliff during much of the first half, Richards returned from a two game absence following Patrick Kaleta’s cheap shot and has found his confidence, scoring in each of the Rangers last two games. Playing with Nash hasn’t hurt, but Richards does seem more involved and decisive with the puck since his return. It has never been more evident than on the power play, where the Rangers’moribund special teams unit has actually begun to show a heartbeat. A faint one, but at least it does appear to be beating.
Overall team toughness and grit, questioned since the summer and exploited many times since, has been given a lift with the call up of Micheal Haley. Haley has played hard and smart since joining the team, even with just over four minutes a game of ice time to work with. Even so, his snarl and edge seems to have filtered throughout the lineup, which has noticeably picked up its physicality over the last few games. This must continue, for without as much as a semblance of a physical presence, New York will have a tough time should they meet a Boston, Carolina or even a Montreal in the playoffs.
The news from earlier today that defenseman Marc Staal could possibly return within two to three weeks has to bolster the teams morale. Sickened by the sight of Staal going down after being hit in the eye by a shot last week, the Rangers can breathe a sigh of relief now that he is apparently on the mend and should be a huge addition down the stretch. Injuries, or avoiding them, is always a key. The Rangers have had their share. Hopefully the worst is over.
Ultimately, however, it comes down to the King once again. Henrik Lundqvist, mirroring his team’s inconsistency early on, is once again playing like royalty. A Lundqvist performing at any level shy of his Vezina Trophy self, and New York has no chance of beating anyone in the postseason or even getting there. 2013 rests on the King’s shoulders, as has every season since his rookie campaign of 2005-06. Last spring, number 30 carried his team to the Eastern Conference Finals, the first deep playoff run of his career. However, he wasn’t at his best throughout the six game defeat to New Jersey, and that raised some eyebrows and questions as to whether arguably the premier goaltender in the league can take his team the distance. Unfair? Of course, but only a second half run to a Stanley Cup will silence the King’s doubters.
Heavy is the head that wears the crown. The Rangers hope the King is hoisting something a bit heavier come June. It starts Tuesday night in Buffalo, with game number 25.
Billy Pepitone is a retired New York City Police Officer turned author and hockey writer. He has published two sports novels, most recently the murder/mystery ‘Ice Cold’ which revolves around the New York Rangers. A Ranger fan for over 35 years, Billy has covered the Blueshirts for NYRangers101.com and ‘The Instigators’ blog talk radio show.