Rangers Finding Their Balance

I keep hearing a lot about the standings, and how the Rangers, despite this run they’ve been on since Oct. 31, are still on the outside of the playoff picture heading into Monday’s game against Dallas.

Well, yeah. But let’s be realistic. They’re sixth in the Metropolitan Division, but just two points out of third, three out of second. They’re behind both wild-card teams by a point, with two games in hand on one of those teams.

But mostly, and I can’t emphasize this enough, it’s Dec. 11. There is still two-thirds of a season that promises to go down to the final week, if not the final day, before playoff spots are sewn up.

Me? I don’t want to talk about standings at this point.

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1. When a team is built as the Rangers are, without the top-level Crosby-Malkin, Toews-Kane, McDavid-Draisaitl, Stamkos-Kucherov type of talent, you do your damage with scoring depth. The Rangers sure did that last year. But it can take time before that kind of depth is realized, when all four lines can contribute on offense.

It did indeed take a while for Alain Vigneault to find and settle on his four lines. And in fact, he hasn’t completely settled on them yet – in part because his No. 1 center, Mika Zibanejad, remains out, though he seems to be getting closer.

Vigneault sure has four lines going now.

That happened when the fourth line emerged and began chipping in. The Paul CareyBoo NievesJesper Fast line has been terrific in all three zones (Nieves hadn’t been on the ice for a goal-against until Friday’s game in Washington).

A funny thing happened Saturday. Vigneault switched Fast with Jimmy Vesey, Fast moving up to the Kevin HayesRick Nash line … and both Fast and Vesey scored goals against the Devils.

J.T. Miller has a five-game point streak, playing in the middle of a line with leading goal scorer Michael Grabner and Mats Zuccarello, who scored a pair of goals Saturday and is 4-6-10 in his last nine. … and also making big plays in the defensive zone.

2. So here the Rangers are, with some numbers piling up:

They are 7-2 in their last nine, 13-4 in their last 17.

They have won 10 of their last 11 at home, the best streak at The Garden since going 12-1 back in 1982.

And, since 2010, in 101 sets of back-to-back games, the Rangers are 66-29-6 in the second game.

[Fischler: 3 Unsung Rangers Heroes]

3. I’ve been beating this drum for a long time. But when the Rangers make up their collective mind to establish a forecheck – to get pucks deep, make opposing defensemen turn, and do the dirty work to spend time in the offensive zone – they’re a much more dangerous team.

It takes a lot of pressure off your defense and your goalie when you spend less time on the south side of the red line. Obviously. Especially against a fast opponent. They seem dedicated to the forecheck now. Most of the time.

It doesn’t mean chip-and-chase at the expense of making a play on every rush, but it means when nothing’s there, roll up the sleeves and go to work.

4. For the last several years, two or three at least, the Devils just couldn’t keep up with the Rangers. Now they’re just about equal in terms of speed. Gotta say, too, that the Devils are a lot more fun to watch, even if Saturday wasn’t one of their better games.

5. Just my opinion but Brady Skjei and Marc Staal have been the Rangers’ most consistent defensemen to date.

6. I know, on the surface it sounds dumb. But with Zibanejad and his righty shot out, I think Fast should get a turn on the first power-play unit. A right-handed shot is so critical, and so sorely missed, that it outweighs a more skilled lefty. The Rangers’ only two righties, after Zibanejad and Kevin Shattenkirk, are Fast and spare defenseman Steve Kampfer. Oh, and Fast has six goals in eight games.

7. Though really, I thought the power play was much better than it’s been in a while on Saturday.

8. Not saying the Rangers all of a sudden are Cup favorites. Question, though: How many Eastern teams could the Rangers not beat in a best-of-seven?

The answer is zero.

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9. Which is going to make GM Jeff Gorton’s decisions at the trade deadline very interesting. It’s a rebuild here, by any name, but the Rangers are going to be very much in the picture at the deadline, with assets that will be worth a lot of future assets.

10. Is there a more snake-bitten scorer than Rick Nash? Is there a player in the league playing as well as Nash and getting rewarded less?

Nash leads the team in shots on goal – and this says a lot about his game – he leads in takeaways. But also has just seven goals. He also probably gets fouled as much as any top player in the game but doesn’t get the call nearly enough.