New York Rangers: Why the Winter Classic Momentum Will Run out
As usual, the NHL Winter Classic was, well, a classic. The victorious New York Rangers have ridden that momentum to second place in the Eastern Conference, but John Tortorella's boys are primed for a fall.
The Rangers have been great for the NHL this season.
It's always better for a league when a league's major-market franchises are generating interest, and the New York Rangers have done that, both on and off the ice.
Yet, it won't last.
Winter Classic History
The Winter Classic hasn't been around long, but based on the results so far, the New York Rangers' participation does not bode well for their Stanley Cup hopes.
The Winter Classic has always featured teams among the best in the league (seven of the eight past participants made the playoffs in that season), but no team to begin the New Year in the NHL's annual outdoor showcase has brought home the Cup in that same year.
The 2007/2008 Pittsburgh Penguins, 2008/2009 Detroit Red Wings and 2009/2010 Philadelphia Flyers all reached the finals after playing in the Winter Classic, but all three failed to hoist the Stanley Cup.
Last season, the first in which HBO's 24/7 came along for the ride to the Winter Classic, neither the Pittsburgh Penguins nor the Washington Capitals were able to advance past the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
It's hard to say why these featured franchises can't break through, but a pattern is certainly beginning to develop.
Tortorella’s Rant Against the Refs
Even after his team won the Winter Classic in Philadelphia, Rangers head coach John Tortorella had some choice words for the referees and the NHL.
I'm not sure if NBC got together with the refs or what to turn this into an overtime game. For two good refs, I thought the game was reffed horribly. I'm not sure what happened there. Maybe they wanted to get into overtime. I'm not sure if they had meetings about that or what. But we stood in there. I don't want to ... because they are good guys. I just thought it was, in that third period, it was disgusting.
Tortorella had a point (the Rangers were penalized three times in the last five minutes of the game), but the NHL is not going to allow its coaches to make those kinds of sweeping accusations.
To nobody's surprise, the NHL handed down a $30,000 fine to Tortorella on Thursday.
There's no way to quantify what effect, positive or negative, that this distraction will have on the New York locker room, but there's no doubt it'll have an impact in another locker room down the hall—the one with the striped jerseys hanging on the wall.
I don't mean to insinuate that officials will purposefully call games differently as a result of Tortorella's comments, but every official in the league must have been infuriated that he'd call their collective integrity into question.
When your job is to make split-second judgements on one of the fastest-paced sports in the world, those sorts of memories can come into play without any conscious realization.
So far, the Rangers have spent the ninth-least amount of time on the penalty kill among all NHL teams. They are one of only 12 teams to spend more time on the power play than the penalty kill.
As a result of his speech, Tortorella's team can plan on spending more time on the penalty kill over the remainder of the season. It may not be significant, but even one or two calls going the other way can certainly make an impact.
In a sport in which games missed due to injury has recently spiked as a result of greater concussion awareness, the New York Rangers have had a remarkably healthy (and lucky) year so far.
Only two New York regulars have missed significant time this season. Defenseman Marc Staal just recently returned from his concussion. Forward Wojtek Wolski is on his way back from a groin injury, but should return to the lineup soon.
Beyond that, the Rangers have been almost completely healthy, with 11 players participating in all 37 of New York's games this season.
The Rangers' competition at the top of the Eastern Conference hasn't been so lucky. The Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins have had no more than seven skaters play in all of their team's games. Only four players have played in every game for the third-place Florida Panthers.
It's extremely unlikely that this run of good fortune is going to continue for an entire season. The Rangers will eventually have to deal with injuries, and when they do, healthier teams will pass them by.
Concurrent Career Years
The New York Rangers' 2011/2012 success isn't smoke and mirrors. The team has been great because its best players have been great.
Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist is fourth in the league in save percentage and goals against average, and is on pace to set career highs in both categories.
On the offensive side, New York's top two scorers are both on pace to establish personal bests in shooting percentage over a full season. Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards are both in the midst of the most efficient goal-scoring seasons of their careers.
It's great for New York to have star players elevating their games, but the likelihood that all three will continue that level of production is slim.
Gaborik, Lundqvist and Richards all have over five years of NHL production at their previous levels. Why would they suddenly get significantly better right now?
It's extremely improbable for three established veterans to each randomly have the best season of their careers on the same team, at the same time. Once their stars start to regress to the mean, the Rangers will too.
The East Is Stacked
Even if the Rangers are able to keep up the pace they've set through the early part of the season, they can't prevent their competition from catching up.
The Boston Bruins currently lead New York in the standings and show no signs of slowing their roughshod rampage over the Eastern Conference.
The Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers both trail the Rangers, but with Claude Giroux's recent return and Sidney Crosby's eventual comeback, both figure to get better as the season wears on.
When the playoffs roll around, the Rangers' competitive disadvantage shows up even more. All three of their top challengers in the Eastern Conference have been to the Stanley Cup Finals in the last three seasons. Two have won it.
Over the same time period, the Rangers have made the playoffs twice and failed to advance past the first round on either occasion.
The Rangers are an exciting young team, but they haven't demonstrated any ability to win playoff games. Brad Richards has a Conn Smythe to his name, and Ruslan Fedotenko has been a part of two Stanley Cup winners, but beyond that, New York is loaded with postseason greenhorns.
Until this team proves it can win a playoff series, it can't be considered a credible threat in the Eastern Conference.