Back in August or September or even October, if somebody said the Rangers would be 31-17-1 after 49 games, you’d have run for the pen and yelled, “Where do I sign?”
You’d almost certainly, also, have been thinking that 31-17-1 would be good enough for first place in the Metropolitan Division, and not fourth place and sitting in a wild-card playoff spot.
But that’s the Rangers’ record and their standing as they come out of the All-Star break and prepare for the final 33 games of the regular season starting Tuesday against Columbus at The Garden.
How they got here is complicated, because they’ve won (and lost) games in so many ways, and because nobody could have figured that the Metro would be the best division in the NHL.
We knew the division housed the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins and the defending Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington Capitals, but we sure didn’t figure that Columbus would win 16 in a row and elbow its way into the conversation.
We didn’t figure, either, that the Rangers would lose 130 manpower-games to injuries and illnesses through the first 49 dates, including long-term injuries to Rick Nash (12 games), Mika Zibanejad (25) and rookie Pavel Buchnevich (32), nor that Henrik Lundqvist would hit the most difficult stretch of his career.
In fact, given the way last season ended, and that the Rangers didn’t make a lot of marquee additions in the summertime, it would have been reasonable to assume that 2016-17 would be a step backward for the Rangers before they could again begin to climb forward.
Well, that hasn’t been the case.
The Rangers’ 31 wins through the first 48 games were tied for second most in the franchise’s 90-year history, one behind the record set in what was a pretty good year, 1993-94.
Speed and depth at forward were most responsible for the Rangers’ record through 49 games. They had that unthinkable stretch of five straight wins, during a 13-4-0 getaway, in which they scored five or more goals in each of the five. They entered the final game before the break – a 2-0 loss to Philadelphia in which the Rangers arguably played better than they had in their previous three games, all of those victories – ranked second in the league at 3.44 goals scored per game.
The goals were more scarce lately, but the Rangers tightened up defensively, allowing six goals in the last four games before the break, and that has to be their bread-and-butter down the stretch. The Rangers, under coach Alain Vigneault, have always produced offense from their defense, meaning the way they play without the puck and the quickness with which they play once they get it back.
“I still like what our team does night-in and night-out and we should have a lot of confidence in this team,” Rangers captain and All-Star representative Ryan McDonagh said.
“We’ve got a stretch of home games here coming out of the break, so that’s a good opportunity for us to get back on a roll again and rest up here a little bit. But ultimately I like what our team’s done and we’re still in a good spot here as we continue to go on with the season.”
They know there is not a lot that has to change dramatically, but at the same time, believe they can be better and more consistent. And that they will have to be.
Asked what he’d like to see from the team in front of him after the break, Lundqvist said, “A lot of the things we’ve been doing lately. I think defending better, we’re doing that. We’re focusing on a lot of different things in our game to help the team to have success.
“You look at our record; I don’t think we should change too much. It’s going to come down to determination every night, wanting to win every game and pay the price, because as you go down the stretch more and more teams are going to have that desperation and you’re going to have to match it.
“The difference between the teams is not very big, so it’s just the mindset. We definitely have the skill and we have the structure to be a really strong team, and then it comes down to that desperation, and we have that.”
The Rangers still have some injuries. Defenseman Marc Staal hopes to return soon from a concussion. Center Kevin Hayes will miss another week or so with a lower-body injury. Winger Jesper Fast and backup goalie Antti Raanta should be back soon, too. And if the roster is ever close to 100 percent healthy, Vigneault will have the nice problem that depth affords – difficult lineup decisions.
The Rangers will play the final 33 games in a span of 69 days (which includes the March 1 trade deadline), after having a three-day holiday break, a union-mandated five-game break, and five days between games for the All-Star break in an otherwise absurdly-packed schedule to date. That will be one challenge.
The tightness and elite level of the division will be another, without a doubt. And the Rangers’ own hopes and expectations will be the biggest, of course.
They, like you, would have signed up for their current record. But the Rangers expected to be right in the mix, and they expect, too, to be there in the end.