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After one of the worst regular season losses in the history of the franchise, February 23rd may potentially be the pivotal day to the New York Rangers' 2007-2008 season.
This team had been considered one of a handful of Stanley Cup championship contenders entering the current campaign, but many observers could tell you that the Rangers have been one of the most inconsistent and most frustrating teams to watch among any of the thirty that play in the National Hockey League.
First, a 3-7 start in October. Then 10-4 in November where goaltender Henrik Lundqvist appeared to be at the very top of his game in just his third NHL season. The words Vezina Trophy were already being whispered around the league. Then New York only managed to match their November win total over the next two months in which they went 10-17 and fell out of playoff contention. Lundqvist had cooled off from his sizzling start.
Last month, the Rangers began to turn things around with impressive road wins in New Jersey and Montreal, including a 5-3 comeback victory over the Canadiens on Super Bowl Sunday. But as Rangers fans have learned, never trust the hockey gods.
After squandering what seemed to be a sure victory when leading 5-0 in their second visit to Montreal on February 19th only to lose 6-5, it appeared that the Rangers deserved to be written off in getting any shot to win only their second championship in 68 years. Get the axe sharpened and ready to be used in a mass execution. That is what many fans in New York felt like doing after their team went down to defeat for the first time ever when leading by five goals.
The Rangers had four days to reflect, learn and then rally together as a team. With the next game in Buffalo, a place where it had always been for them a difficult place to win and was their first visit since a heartbreaking Game 5 playoff loss where a series lead was just 7.7 seconds away, it was time to either succeed or fail.
Sean Avery scored the game-winning goal with 5:15 left in the game to defeat the Sabres that night and it appeared to be a very important win. It would be the start of their current four-game winning streak and a 7-1 run in their last 8 games. Not only has this roll put the Rangers into a playoff position with a dozen games remaining, they have a legitimate shot to win the Atlantic Division AND amazingly enough a chance to win the regular season's Eastern Conference crown.
What is even more impressive of late with New York is that they have the league's longest point streak of the season at 13 straight games and have earned 23 of a possible 26 points in that span. Their last regulation loss was on February 7th in a 4-1 setback to the defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks at Madison Square Garden. All this has come as the Rangers have quietly put together their current run while flying under the radar. Only the San Jose Sharks have been hotter than New York with a 10-game winning streak entering tonight.
Some key notes to the Rangers' recent success:
Sean Avery's impact
Since his arrival in New York on February 5, 2007 in a trade from Los Angeles, the team is 45-29 with him in the lineup and only 9-16 without. It is safe to say the Rangers need to extend his contract as soon as possible. By thriving on the top scoring line with Jaromir Jagr and the rapidly emerging star rookie Brandon Dubinsky, he should get a big raise. It is only a matter of whether or not general manager Glen Sather will take care of one of the Rangers' most important acquisitions since the lockout.
Scott Gomez leading the team in point scoring
After a slow start to his first season with New York, Scott Gomez has been their best point producer to date with 66 points. Even though his career-best 13-game point scoring streak was during the Rangers' struggles of December and January, he remains one of the team's biggest threats to opponents on the ice. His game-winning shootout goal in Buffalo on Monday night completed a four-game season sweep over the Sabres and put the Rangers into their current position in the playoff race, sixth place in the Eastern Conference.
Chris Drury has found his niche
Chris Drury has been nothing short of sensational with his continued success in faceoffs (winning 55% of the time, good for 12th in the league), putting pucks in the net as he shares the team lead with Brendan Shanahan with 22 goals this season and even more impressive is his willingness to sacrifice his body especially during penalty kills. Drury has blocked 69 shots this season, good for second in the NHL.
Ryan Callahan and Nigel Dawes are back in important roles
Having to recover from a knee injury was bad enough, but Ryan Callahan had to overcome a season-long scoring slump where he couldn't buy a goal. All seven of his goals have come since the February 7th game against Anaheim and had two come against red-hot San Jose ten days later. But he's been a sparkplug with his physical game by registering 102 hits on the season, fifth among rookies. Nigel Dawes has come up big of late as he's registered 8 points in the last 8 games. But he's also lately become a weapon in shootouts as he scored in each of the Rangers' last two wins, including the winner in their 1-0 victory over Boston on Sunday.
Henrik Lundqvist has regained his Midas touch
Despite a mid-season slump, Lundqvist has found his game again and has he's gone, so have the Rangers. The last two games alone has been a telling sign. He allowed just two goals in the last 130 minutes of hockey to backstop the Broadway Blueshirts to two big wins. Lundqvist outlasted Alexander Auld in goaltending duel with a 1-0 shootout win over visiting Boston on Sunday followed by a thrilling 3-2 victory in Buffalo.
Jaromir Jagr has awakened from Snow White coma
Jagr has finally snapped out of what has been a season-long slumber as a second attempt this season by head coach Tom Renney to pair him up with Dubinsky as his setup man has paid off. The Rangers captain has notched 10 points (3 goals and 7 assists) in the last 9 games and his contributions couldn't have come at a better time. While he will fall far short of the production he amassed two seasons ago, if the team expects to go anywhere past April 6th, Jagr will have no choice but to step up and produce.
As the Rangers head down the final stretch of the regular season with 12 games remaining starting with a road game against the desperate Florida Panthers who have won five straight themselves, Renney knows that despite the team being in the position they are in, nothing has been accomplished. No playoff berth has been secured. Having 10 wins and three non-regulation losses during their current point streak that has New York just five points from the conference lead won't mean anything if they don't finish strong.
"The trick now, because we still have a dozen games to go, is to maintain that momentum," Renney said to Jim Cerny of newyorkrangers.com. "We really have to tap into what we want to be as a team moving forward and how we want to sign our work at the end of this hockey season. And that certainly can be determined by these next 12 games."
Following games against Florida and Tampa Bay on back-to-back nights tonight and Saturday, New York will face only Atlantic Division rivals to close out the regular season. They include three games each against the Devils and Pittsburgh Penguins in a dogfight to win the division as well as the Eastern Conference. The good news is that the Rangers have the best record against their division among the five teams at 15-7. Obviously, they must improve on that record if they plan to nail down a playoff berth and gain momentum heading into the postseason. With two more meetings with the Philadelphia Flyers, a team that occupies the eighth and final playoff berth in the East and is just four points behind New York, here's your dose of bad news. You go into any losing streak whatsoever and also lose both those two games, the Rangers could be on the golf course in just a few short weeks.
With a division and conference race so tight and competitive, every game is critical. Yeah, no kidding. With those 12 games left, the stakes are higher and the proving ground is bigger than before. The New York Rangers are forced to meet expectations or go home.