The Rangers opened the second half of the season last night against the Carolina Hurricanes. After 48 games, the Rangers have 60 points, putting them on pace for 102 for the season. Though they may not reach that number, the Blueshirts are in excellent position to extend their playoff streak to four consecutive seasons. Unlike the last couple years, the Rangers do not need to have a miraculous late season surge this year to reach the promised land. Powered by a 10-2-1 start, the Rangers jumped ahead of the pack and have lingered there all season. Whether they actually belong atop the standings is another question entirely.
The Rangers opened the season in Prague following a summer makeover and looked like a team that had been transformed into a speedy, puck-possession monster in the mold of the defending champion Detroit Red Wings. The revelation however, was short lived. On November 1, the cracks in the armor of the Rangers were exposed and the team quickly came crashing back to earth. The Toronto Maple Leafs rallied from a 2-0 deficit with five third period goals in less than 10 minutes and reshaped the Rangers season. Since November 1, the Rangers are 18-14-3. Factor in the overtime losses and the Rangers are a mere game over .500 in their last 35 games.
But the beginning of the season can't be ignored. For those games do count, and they provide the Rangers with the luxury of significant breathing room that the team hasn't enjoyed in years.
For the better part of the next two months, the Rangers played mediocre hockey as Henrik Lundqvist endured his annual midseason month-long struggle and the team played mainly uninspired hockey. But unlike in the past, all season the Rangers have been winning games they didn't deserve, and stealing victories via the shootout.
So now the Rangers are sitting pretty in fifth place in the Eastern Conference, a single point away from the division lead, and 10 points ahead of Florida in ninth. The playoffs are not guaranteed, but the Rangers would really have to implode at this point to miss out. And the good news is that the team has been playing much better of late, once again conforming and performing in Coach Tom Renney's system. In addition, Henrik Lundqvist has found his A-game again.
But it must be repeated, this year the Rangers gave themselves a nice cushion. They don't need to run the table in the second half. But what if they do? The team has played better in the last couple of weeks than it has since the 10-2-1 start. What if they've figured it out and they do go on a run like the last couple years?
Because of their cushion, the Rangers have a chance to make a real push for the divisional title and play on home-ice during the playoffs. Are they a Stanley Cup contender? At this point it's hard to see them competing with the Bruins, or the Sharks, or the Red Wings. But there is time to improve.
Grading the team in the first half:
Blair Betts: The Rangers fourth line center is having his best year with the team. Game in and game out he continues to lead the Rangers top-ranked penalty kill. Betts sacrifices his body to block shots like his life depends on it and has significantly improved his face-off technique. What's more, Betts has already more than doubled his goal output from last year. Grade: A+
Ryan Callahan: The Rangers winger is quietly tied with Nikolai Zherdev for third on the team in goals with 12. But that's an added bonus. Callahan is the heart and soul of the Rangers. The team's most consistent player, Callahan was the lone Ranger forward to throw his body around and play his rear off during the Rangers November-December vacation. His offensive game has improved tremendously, but his heart and effort are his true value to the team. Grade: A
Nigel Dawes: Dawes has been involved in the press-box carousel that has included Aaron Voros, Petr Prucha, and Dan Fritsche all season. He deserves a permanent spot on the team based on his potential and last year's productivity. That said, the Rangers expected more out of Dawes this year. He's come on a bit lately, but eight goals and 16 points is a bit underwhelming from one of last year's biggest surprises. Dawes has shown some flashes, but not enough to really warrant adulation by fans or the coaching staff. Still, Dawes has rounded his game out a bit on the defensive end and should be commended. Grade: B-
Chris Drury: Drury has drawn the wrath of many Rangers fans and reporters for his shocking decline this season and rightly so. Though he finds himself tied for the Rangers lead in goals, Drury's season has been a nightmare. The defensive effort and reputation for doing all the little things has really been missing in Drury's game this season. So Rangers supporters have constantly been questioning what exactly he's being paid all that money for if he isn't producing at an all-star level offensively. Drury may have been bogged down by the weight of the captaincy, as he too has stepped up lately. But Drury truly has something to prove in the second half. Grade: C-
Brandon Dubinsky: After a torrid preseason and impressive start, many (including myself) thought Dubinsky was on his was to a 30 goal season and stardom. Seven goals and 24 points later, Dubinsky has been mired in an awful slump. Worse still, Dubinsky has been relatively invisible on most nights in all aspects of the game. Dubinsky still has significant upside, and consistently shows the leadership and attitude of a winner, but his sophomore year probably can't end fast enough. Grade: C-
Dan Fritsche: Fritsche has showed basically nothing in his limited opportunities with the team. Nobody would know he's played in 16 games with the Rangers, and he probably won't be around much longer as the Rangers grapple with cap space. In his few noticeable moments, Fritsche has showed some defensive responsibility but very little else. Grade: Incomplete
Dan Girardi: Girardi displayed some serious offensive talent in the beginning of the season, but as the defense's overall play declined, Girardi was handcuffed to his partners' mistakes and began playing much more conservatively. Girardi is not flashy, but he takes the body and rarely makes mistakes. He's probably best suited as a third-pair defenseman on a good team, but for the Rangers, he is invaluable. It will be interesting to see how his game changes in the second half as the Rangers improve. Grade: B
Scott Gomez: If there's one man to blame for the Rangers problems in the last couple of months, it's Gomez. No. 19 was banged up for a portion of the season, but his two years with the Rangers have been a colossal disappointment. He's on pace for an embarrassing 55 points, but even worse he shows literally zero intensity on the ice and a complete unwillingness to change his game that is clearly failing. Gomez shies away from contact like it's the plague and can be bullied by anyone. He has no finishing ability. And his ridiculous habit of dumping the puck into the offensive zone results in turnovers at least 2/3's of the time. He's fast, but that's about the only thing he's got going for him. Grade: F
Dmitri Kalinin: Kalinin is despised by Ranger fans, following the paths of Marek Malik, Jason Strudwick, Tom Poti, etc. While Kalinin isn't a very good player, all things considered, I think he is not such a bad sixth defenseman. Kalinin can be physical, and he is much more solid defensively than he gets credit for. Kalinin is by far the most talented of his whipping-boy predecessors. I don't expect him to be back next year as Corey Potter has shown that he can play in the NHL, but Kalinin really isn't as bad as many believe. Grade: C-
Lauri Korpikoski: There may not be a more important individual to watch in the second half of the season than the Korpedo. Lauri shows some flashes of brilliance and has made more impressive plays by the game lately it seems. Why he's still being rotated in and out of the lineup is a mystery to me, as he's more physical than the guys replacing him most of the time. Korpikoski has quietly developed into a responsible player and seems to genuinely be having fun as he learns more about the NHL. His offensive breakthrough probably won't come this season, but there is a chance he could turn into a reliable scorer. Grade: B
Henrik Lundqvist: If Henry could get past his annual month-long struggle, he might have a couple Vezina Trophies on display at his home instead of three nominations. When he's on, which is most of the time; he's the best goalie on the planet, without much argument. When he's not, he's still good, but it's not nearly enough for the Rangers to win games. At his best, Henrik is nearly unbeatable and steals games routinely for the Rangers. And obviously, there is not must doubt who has the advantage when the Rangers enter a shootout. Hank seems to be past his difficulties, and the Rangers must be encouraged by the thought that in any given playoff series, Lundqvist could get hot and the Rangers could bring home the Holy Grail. Grade: B
Paul Mara: If Callahan is the heart of the Rangers offense, Mara is the soul of the defense. Mara has really settled in with the Rangers this year, and it shows in his confidence. Mara now routinely blasts shots from the point, something he seemed very afraid to do in his first year with the team. He is not quite a shut-down defenseman, but he is probably the Rangers most dependable blue-liner, and easily the smartest guy with the puck. Hopefully, Perry Pearn has noticed that with Mara on the point, shorthanded goals against have dropped dramatically. Mara is the unsung hero of the Rangers at this point, and his efforts this year really shouldn't be overlooked. Grade: A+
Markus Naslund: Jaromir Jagr's replacement has basically performed exactly as expected, which is a very rare occurrence for a Rangers free agent signing. His 15 goals have basically been typical Naslund, quick wrist-shots, fast hands around the net, and a nose for the puck. Maybe he shouldn't have gotten a two year deal because of the Rangers salary cap issues, but Naslund has certainly earned his four million dollars so far and there is no reason to expect a sudden disappearance. Grade: B+
Colton Orr: Orr started off the year very impressively with some newfound speed and a bit more offensive awareness, but now he seems back to normal. Orr isn't flashy but he's the Rangers enforcer and there are few better in the league at his job. Grade: B
Corey Potter: Potter has only played two games with the big club, but it's been enough to convince everyone that he should have a full time gig. Grade: Incomplete
Petr Prucha: The biggest mystery of the season so far is why the heck Petr Prucha isn't in the lineup every night. He's so beloved by the fans that he single-handedly has caused many to call for the firing of Coach Renney because of his handling of the youngster. And for good reason. Every time Prucha is on the ice, good things happen. He's like Alex Ovechkin in that he is clearly an offensive player, but he loves the game and his team so much that he hits anything that moves and puts incredible effort into his game. Better yet, Prucha is the ultimate team guy, never once complaining about his inexcusable treatment. That it's still very possible that Prucha will get moved, and that he will sit on the bench for much of the second half, is a travesty. The Rangers sudden resurgence directly coincides with Prucha's return to the lineup. Grade: A
Wade Redden: I idolized Redden and was beyond thrilled when he was signed, so it's very difficult for me to write this. But I cannot believe we signed up for six years of this. Redden, in his prime, was one of the league's top defenders. Not only was he solid in his own end, but his outlet passes were always perfect, his shot from the point found the back of the net with great frequency, and his power play quarterbacking struck fear in the hearts of opposing coaches. Now? Redden is a laughingstock. I still have hope because I know that that star player is still around somewhere, and Redden has played much, much better lately, but this signing can be categorized as nothing else but an unmitigated disaster. Grade: D
Michael Roszival: Redden's partner in crime is Rosy. At the time, many were confused about why GM Glen Sather thought it was wise to sign two basically identical players, especially when he locked up Redden, who was obviously better, to such a huge contract first. Well, that question deserves an answer from Slats. Roszival has been very hit or miss this year. He's made some awful mistakes and decisions, but then you'll see him shut down some of the game's best talents and wonder what's going on. Still Roszival's grade must be tied to his single-handed delivery of several shorthanded goals to the opposition. Roszival has a cannon of a shot, but he refuses to use it on the power play and seems much more content to sign, seal, and deliver the puck to the back of Hank's net time and time again. Grade: D+
Fredrik Sjostrom: Freddy Shoes biggest impact in the first half has probably been his surprising abilities in the shootout. He has come out of nowhere to provide the Rangers with a viable option in that situation. He clearly has some offensive talent, and an impressive shot, and if he wasn't so darn good with Betts and in back-checking, I'd be a strong advocate of giving him a shot with some better offensive playmakers. But he's pretty good where he is. Grade: A-
Marc Staal: Staal has gotten some national attention for his rise to stardom this year. It's pretty well-deserved; he improves night by night and can play with anyone now. It's still a mystery to me how a guy that grew up with his brothers seems to have such nonexistent offensive skills, but I'll take what I've got in Staal. Whether he'll be a Norris Trophy candidate down the road or not, he surely will be a Ranger for a very long time. Grade: A-
Steve Valiquette: Sadly, the Rangers are probably going to lost Valiquette as he has shown that he clearly deserves a chance to be a starter in this league. Steve does everything the Rangers could hope for and more. He's so reliable that Rangers fans don't even worry when they hear that Henrik has the night off. There's not much more to be said: Valiquette is never out of position and never gives up a soft goal. He's the perfect backup. Grade: A
Aaron Voros: Voros has landed in the doghouse lately, but I choose to remember his shocking start. Voros already has eight goals, which is a couple more than I expected from him on the season. So yes, Prucha deserves to play over him, but, for a million dollars, I think the Rangers got a pretty fair deal out of Voros. It's time to get rid of him, but I think Voros basically came as billed. But it's very understandable that Rangers fans hold a grudge against a man keeping their hero out of the lineup (as do I). Grade: C-
Nikolai Zherdev: The Rangers leader in points has been the enigma everyone expected. He can basically do whatever he wants with the puck, but it's translated into only 12 goals. I don't know why he's not more productive, but I am extremely grateful that Nik has played so well in his own end. That, Rangers fans could not have expected. Zherdev is still one of only five Rangers with a + rating. Whether he'll ever put it all together is a good question. How the Rangers will handle Zherdev's contract demands may be a better one though. Their cap struggles have been talked about everywhere, and it's going to be awfully hard to sign Zherdev and Dubinsky. So maybe Zherdev's relative lack of production will be good if it's postponed a year so Slats can lock him up on the cheap. Grade: B
Tom Renney: It's hard to be so negative about a coach who has returned the Rangers to relevance and has guided them to a shocking first half in terms of the standings. But Renney's absolute stubbornness regarding the Prucha situation is baffling, especially considering how in touch with the pulse of the team he's been in the past, and how intelligent he seems to be. Many argue that Renney should adapt his coaching to the lineup he has and open up the offense. I disagree, because to me, coaches are successful with the system they run, and how they run it. If the Rangers want to open up the attack, Renney is not the guy who's going to do it. I think the Rangers can play under Renney, and they've proven it. He needs to be a little stricter, and they need to buy into it again, but I don't think Renney is the problem. Grade: C
Glen Sather: How are the Rangers in this cap conundrum? Look no further. To his credit, he hasn't traded away any young talent, yet. But there appears to be no way out of this cap situation, and the Rangers will likely be forced to play with a barren roster next year. Not good. Grade: D-