Rangers Have Dreams for Sweet ’16

Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life. The only completely consistent people are dead –  Aldous Huxley

Looking for a half-season motto for these New York Rangers? Good ol’ Aldous pretty much sums it up. For this is a team that has uniquely redefined inconsistency on ice: Franchise record-setters the first six weeks, slipping through the sobering doldrums of December, now in a restorative midseason rebuild that brings philosophical questions for the Garden Faithful at the statistical halfway point.

Is this glass half-empty or half-full? Has it been halfway decent or half-hearted? Are the Rangers haves or have-nots?

It is a debate with as much variation and division as we have seen in the Metro Division, where the Rangers have gone from 7-up to 16-down – a standings swing of 23 points in just 23 games, dating to Nov. 23.

So what happened, other than an otherworldly stretch of Capital punishment from a team that has shown equal parts will and skill? From my vantage point between the benches, there was a noticeable inconsistency in the Rangers’ battle level since their astonishing 16-3-2 start. Couple that with a December schedule on the ice and on the road that permitted only six full-squad off-day practices, and you have what could now be seen as an inevitable leveling off.

Excuse? Some might say that. Explanation? Absolutely. But it’s also indicative of a team that, as we have seen the past two seasons under Alain Vigneault, is among a small handful of legitimate Stanley Cup favorites when their collective work ethic and attention to detail is peaking. But without proper practice time, that sharpness often dulls. In hockey, and pretty much any other sport.

From what I see and hear at ice level, the Rangers’ passion has always been in place. There is spirit, there is encouragement and there is togetherness (which was the unofficial buzzword during the aforementioned doldrums). And so, there is reason to believe that this group grasps this situation and will much more resemble the October/November team than the month that followed.

Or, as that equally erudite poet Adam Duritz once sang, “It’s been a long December but there’s reason to believe, maybe this year will be better than the last.”

BETWEEN THE BENCHES

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The question I am most often asked by hockey fans and friends, other than how much that puck to the face hurt nearly three years ago, is this: What are the best things you hear between the benches?

More often than not, the A-plus material is reported on the air, albeit edited for family viewing. As you might expect, frustration is the prevalent emotion expressed on ice, usually in short, four-letter bursts, and most notably after a missed scoring opportunity or a bad turnover or injury.

But every now and then, the interaction between opponents presents humorous or eye-opening snapshots.

For instance, the time Mats Zuccarello – late in a game the Rangers had comfortably tucked away – encouraged an opponent to “score some goals, I have you in my fantasy league.” That brought a smile from the foe, even as defeat was imminent. Or the time “Zucc” told Sidney Crosby that Evgeni Malkin was his favorite Penguin. Crosby had no response.

As you would expect, Tanner Glass is a lightning rod for bench-jockeying, often trying to knock star players off their mental game as often as he tries to knock any player off their skates. Glass’ general intellect (he’s an Ivy Leaguer from Dartmouth) and knowledge of every nugget of a player’s career is often put to use in the quest to gain even the slightest advantage for his team. But what amazes me most is that when the gloves actually drop, nothing is said. No words during or after the fight, except perhaps for a “good job” if it’s warranted.

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Then there is Dylan McIlrath, who has wasted no time establishing himself as a physical and verbal presence. Recently, while yelling at the opposition bench, a player said to McIlrath, “Who the (bleep) are you? I don’t even know who you are.” McIlrath calmly responded: “Fight me. You’ll learn who I am real quick.”

Because of my ability to watch replays on a monitor in the box, players from both sides often ask about borderline hits, or goal calls or offsides. In the preseason, Flyers center Claude Giroux asked if a call against his team was legitimate. I didn’t think it was and I told him that. “That’s OK, our PK could really use the help.”

What also stands out from my standing-room-only spot is the human side of the players, coaches and trainers. When a Ranger comes to the bench injured, head trainer Jim Ramsey kicks into part-time mind-reader mode, not wanting to approach the player unless it’s significant enough for that player to not persevere through on his own. It’s a fascinating give-and-take, especially because players never want to admit injury. They really are most remarkable athletes.

There also is a lot of encouragement and in-game coaching from coaches to players and from one player to another. The coaches’ use of iPads on the bench has brought instant teaching moments into the 21st century, but there’s still nothing like player-to-player communication. In fact, the most consistently vocal and upbeat player on the Rangers bench might come as a surprise: It’s Keith Yandle, who hasn’t even been with the team for a full year

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And just a few weeks ago, in the midst of a frustrating loss to the Rangers, Ottawa tough guy Chris Neil tried to throw a late-game message-sending hit on a Ranger between the benches. He missed, and in doing so, his stick slammed into my box and clipped me on the shoulder. I watched as Neil headed to the bench, slammed the door in anger and sat with his head down on the Senators bench.

About 10 seconds later, Neil leaned over and said: “Hey buddy. Sorry about the stick. My bad.” I thought that was pretty amazing, given where his mindset was at that split second.

While those moments and others are noteworthy, you might be surprised to hear that the majority of the in-game communication consists of simple line-change orders from Vigneault, brief and specific instruction from assistants Ulf Samuelsson and Scott Arniel, mostly even-tempered messages of motivation and largely level-headed discussions with officials about why something was or wasn’t called. It’s not nearly the “Slap Shot“-level dialogue that you might imagine.

Of course, there are exceptions. And when they occur, I’ll be there to report them.

REACH OUT

In fact, we plan to make this little literature soirée a weekly feature here on MSGNetworks.com. Feel free to share your Rangers thoughts, comments, questions with me on Twitter: @jaygeemsg. I always look forward to interacting with the Faithful.

Thanks for reading Vol. I.