Rangers Go Good “Will” Hunting

When last we saw the Rangers, they were standing on The Garden’s center ice emblem, raising their sticks after again raising hopes with a spirited 60 in a 6-3 win over the Sabres.

For one night – and importantly for THAT night since it left a lingering impression through the NHL All-Star break – Ranger naysayers and doomsayers were silenced. The pessimistic legion of ledge-perchers were safely back indoors. Gone was the awful aftertaste of a Sunday in Ottawa that even had even-tempered Alain Vigneault alternately scratching his head, and banging it against the nearest wall.

So after a week of R & R in the sun and sand, the Rangers return to work for what is essentially a 10-week season. Thirty-three games spanning 68 days. Sixteen games at MSG, 17 elsewhere.

A prelude to the playoffs? Or the continuation of a clumsy two-step that will leave the Rangers sitting out the NHL’s Big Dance?

As play resumes this week, only six of 29 NHL teams reside above the Rangers in the league standings. Six. Only two — the Capitals and Panthers — play in the East. Last year at this time, six Eastern conference teams alone were ahead of the Rangers, and nine teams overall.

The difference is, the Rangers were a comfortable eight points ahead of the playoff cutline last year. Today, it’s a more precarious four.

But when you consider what the Rangers accomplished in their last 10 weeks of the 2014-15 season — 25-7-3 en route to the Presidents’ Trophy after January, largely without Henrik Lundqvist — you can understand why the captain keeps the faith even as some of his fan base wavers.

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“Absolutely I believe in the people in this (dressing) room, 100 percent I do,” Ryan McDonagh said before departing for Nashville as the Rangers’ lone Star. “This group has been though a lot together. We know what it takes.”

McDonagh’s sentiments echoed those of his team president less than two weeks earlier. As the Rangers returned home with their moms from a bitter loss in Washington, Glen Sather exhorted his team to “keep your heads up, it’s a long season. This is a good team.”

What McDonagh talks about through his optimism is what nearly every member of that group mentions in various forms or phrases. And, it’s much less about systems or strategies or analytics as it is about the time-tested formula for sporting success.

“Battle level.” “Desire.” “Effort.” Or as Lundqvist says in virtually every interview, “Will.”

Will.

It is a trait as inconsistent as any other in this half-full, yet half-empty Rangers season. It is the trait that guides every other undeniable element, and every other unalienable right, that the Rangers must get right if their last 10 weeks last another 10 weeks in a Cup-worthy pursuit.

BEST IN SHOW

“Our best players have to be our best players.” Those were Alain Vigneault’s parting words to his team and for public consumption before the break. And that means McDonagh, Dan Girardi and Marc Staal need to revert to CONSISTENT blueline form. They’ve shown flashes of form in recent weeks, particularly McDonagh both with and without the puck. Now, that flash needs to be panache.

Alain Vigneault discusses Derick Brassard's performance and the Rangers' effort in their 6-3 win over Buffalo.

And then there’s Rick Nash. As dedicated and caring as any in the room (witness his injury-riddled night in Carolina last week), Nash’s primary job description is to be THE offensive catalyst. And it WILL be a colossal struggle to the postseason if Nash struggles to score as he has in postseasons. He needs to more than double his to-date goal production (12) for the Rangers to double-down on their “legit Cup contender” status.

But Nash cannot be the offensive lone Ranger. Derek Stepan, Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello are three young veterans to whom McDonagh was referring when he exuded confidence about the group and its recent-season accomplishments. All three admit to the frustration of inconsistency. All three need to find their playoff gear in February.

But for all their collective and individual importance, if Vigneault and the rest of Rangerstown is to wish upon a star, look no further than the brightest one in the Blueshirt galaxy.

For more than a decade, Lundqvist has been equal parts cornerstone and backbone. This season, he has been as much a poster child as anyone for the physical and emotional rollercoaster. Now, it is time for Lundqvist to play the lead role in another Broadway matinee.

After a somewhat exhausting schedule of travel that included 11 back-to-backs so far, the Rangers play on consecutive days just six more times in the final 68 days. So Lundqvist – who didn’t spend his downtime this time as a sitting duck at an All-Star shooting gallery – WILL be plenty rested and ready.

NO KID-DING AROUND

As with all franchises in all sports, the Rangers have shown requisite patience through the inevitable growing pains of their young players. At various times in their fledgling careers, Chris Kreider, J.T. Miller and Kevin Hayes have seen the ice, the bench, the press box, the error of their ways and the light.

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Now, it is time for them to see the way.

Most pundits figured the Rangers would see a scoring slack this season. Nash wasn’t likely to repeat his 42-goal season. Martin St. Louis surely wasn’t going to reproduce his 21, given that he’s retired and all. So, those 30 or more goals would need to be replaced from somewhere.

And it was reasonable and logical to expect the trio of Young Americans to be the providers. Last year, Kreider, Hayes and Miller combined for 48 goals. As of the break this year, only 29. For his part, Miller has spent the last six weeks or so playing to his substantial potential. But it can’t be just Miller’s time. Kreider must be a force, who forces defenses to shudder. Hayes must be more assertive. Can they be? Absolutely. WILL they be? That requisite patience has its limits.

TOOLS OF THE TRADE

Throughout their successful last decade of late-season runs to playoff berths, the Rangers have never shied away from revamping their roster in February and beyond.

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There were blockbusters such as Anthony Duclair/John Moore/1st-rounder for-Keith Yandle (2015), Ryan Callahan/1st-rounders for-St. Louis (2014) or Marian Gaborik-for-Derick Brassard/Etc. (2013). And, then there were the yearly tinkerings that brought Petr Sykora, Sandis Ozolinsh, Sean Avery, Paul Mara, Derek Morris, Nik Antropov, Olli Jokinen, Brandon Prust, Bryan McCabe, John Scott (!!), Ryane Clowe and others to New York, all in the hope of being more playoff-worthy.

So it would be zero surprise, despite the cap limitations, to see GM Jeff Gorton, with Sather’s steely input, make a move to help the Rangers make their move. Remember, salary retention can be a means to working around tight budgets. Where there’s a WILL …

And no doubt, the most pivotal question surrounds their most recent blockbuster acquisition.

To move Yandle, or not to move him? That is the question. Do the Rangers keep their puck-moving defenseman this spring who could leave as a free agent this summer, or do they move him now for an equally “rented,” but perhaps more valuable Top-6 forward (Andrew Ladd or Patrick Marleau).

Also, do the Rangers even consider packaging an aforementioned Young American? I can’t imagine that. But anything is possible. Stay tuned.

BOYLE-ING POINT

It will be equal parts fascinating and fundamental to watch how Vigneault handles the playing time and emotions of Dan Boyle down the stretch. A proud pro who turns 40 in July (only Jaromir Jagr and the injured Patrik Elias are older), Boyle has often struggled through a frustrating season. Along the way, Dylan McIlrath has played as well as could be expected for a youngster who has gone stretches of 21, 12 and 22 days between games at various points this season.

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Boyle’s skill and veteran playoff presence will be vital factors in April and beyond. There’s no question. But it is reasonable to question whether there is another gear for a playoff season that requires at least two extra gears. And, it’s entirely reasonable to question what kind of postseason player McIlrath can be. It’s a great unknown.

Again. Stay tuned.

RIDE THE METRO

Simply put, the Rangers’ fate between now and the April 9th season-ender at The Garden against the Red Wings will depend almost entirely on what they do against division rivals.

Of the Rangers’ 33 post-All Star games, 15 are within the Metropolitan Division. There are four against the Penguins (who are four points behind), three against the Devils (4 back), two more at home with the Islanders (3 back), two against the Flyers (9 back) and one in Carolina (5 back). Throw in one against presumptive division winner Washington Capitals and two against the bottom-feeding Blue Jackets, and you have the blueprint for the Rangers season right there.

Granted, there is a three-games-in-four-night foray to California, and challenging trips to St. Louis, Dallas, Detroit and Montreal. But you get the sense that those intense intradivision games will make the difference.

And as we know, WILL is the Rangers’ operative word.

THANK YOU

And finally, thank you so much for so many positive responses to the blog idea. It’s heartening to know there is such interest and appreciation, and I return those sentiments. Please, keep the discussion coming on Twitter at @jaygeemsg.