There are many naysayers out there that would like to believe that the New York Rangers have succumbed to their recent slump, but that is not the case.
They have not worked this hard to come together as a team and lead the Atlantic Division since late December to simply lie down and take it at the most crucial point in the season.
Lets also not forget that up until their rough patch between March 6th and March 9th, it was the first time the Blueshirts had lost three games in a row all season. That alone speaks volumes about their depth.
They have the uncanny ability to bounce back from any adversity they have faced and what they are looking at now is no exception.
With nine games left to play and the chance to win home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs, one can be sure that the Rangers will be giving it all they've got from here on out.
The problem was, the Rangers were used to sitting pretty in the No. 1 spot, where no other team was even close to them in points. But, since they have been struggling over the last few weeks, the gap between their Atlantic Division opponents has narrowed considerably.
Personally, I think it makes things all the more interesting at this point, because the race is so close that it really ups the intensity of each game—it is do-or-die hockey for them every night.
All I know is that the fat lady has yet to sing her song and hope is very much alive and kicking in New York.
That and the fact that they seem to have gotten their groove back.
After Monday night's 4-2 win against the New Jersey Devils at Madison Square Garden, the New York Rangers (97 points) are the only team in the entire Eastern Conference to have clinched a playoff spot.
No other teams have received the honor at this point, which I think is a testament to the success the Rangers have endured overall this season.
This marks the earliest point that the Rangers have clinched a playoff spot dating all the way back to 1992.
This also shows quite the improvement over their past two seasons in particular, where the Rangers' chances of making the playoffs was dependent upon the outcome of their final game in the regular season.
In 2010, they were eliminated from playoff contention in the final game as the result of a shootout, and last season they just made the playoffs by the skin of their teeth.
Having clinched a playoff berth at this point with ten games still in tow shows the dedication and tenacity this particular Rangers team has and is, I believe, a sign of good things to come for them.
These are the most current standings for the Atlantic Division:
1. New York Rangers - 99 points
2. Pittsburgh Penguins - 96 points
3. Philadelphia Flyers - 92 points
4. New Jersey Devils - 89 points
5. New York Islanders - 71 points
As anyone can clearly see, it is quite the tight race (not including the despondent Islanders of course).
But, I believe this will only make things more interesting, as every point and every game means so much to each team.
Perhaps even more so for the Rangers, because they have worked so hard to get to this point in their game and the standings that there is no way they will give it up when things matter the most.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are the only team that really should be considered a threat, because they have been playing phenomenally great hockey, having won 11 straight games in a row. And, having Sidney Crosby back in the lineup is simply contributing more to an already lethal looking team.
The Penguins are also coming off a huge win Tuesday night as well, where they demolished the Winnipeg Jets 8-4. Evgeni Malkin scored two goals and three assists, James Neal scored three goals and one assist and Sidney Crosby (who has only been back in the lineup since last Thursday night's matchup against the Rangers) had four assists in the game.
The Penguins are doing something their animal species is genetically unable to do—fly.
Their soaring record proves that they are without a doubt a force to be reckoned with, but that only ups the ante for the Rangers, who are desperately holding onto the division lead and their dignity by one point.
If the Rangers however, can just continue to follow the advice of their fearless leader, head coach John Tortorella and take it one day and one game at a time, things will be just fine going forward. And that seems to be working for them once again (judging by their last two outings).
Anyone who watched Monday night's sixth and final regular season meeting against the New Jersey Devils knows that was a different Rangers team than we were used to seeing in the previous ten games.
They had a fire and intensity to their game (which no doubt was magnified by the tumultuous brawl that erupted just three seconds into the contest), which we haven't seen from them in quite some time.
Brandon Dubinsky (whose play has suffered this year) came through big for the Blueshirts with an early goal within the first two minutes of play.
The all-out boxing match and early lead set the tone for the evening, stating that the Rangers were in it to win it and also sent a message that they would not be bullied.
They dominated from start to finish and were back to playing the style of no-nonsense hockey that fans have been excited to watch all season.
I don't know what coach Tortorella said to motivate them going into Monday's matchup, but whatever it was, it worked and has continued to work as we saw another strong game from them against the Colorado Avalanche Wednesday night.
There is a great quote by Tortorella from the Associated Press after the win on March 19th, exemplifying his day-to-day attitude all season:
"I just want us to continue to play and continue to try to improve, and try to be playing our best hockey when we go into that last week. These last couple of weeks are very important."
Well they were playing much better Monday night than we have seen in weeks, and if they keep that up, there will be no stopping them.
The same can be said for their win Wednesday night against the Detroit Red Wings.
It was the first (and only time) the two teams have met this season.
Going into the game, the Rangers knew it was going to be a tough match, being that both teams are fighting for that top spot in their respective divisions. But the Rangers persevered, charged the net and came out victorious with a 2-1 win in overtime (which extends their lead against the Penguins by three points).
Captain Ryan Callahan scored a beauty in overtime off of a play set in motion by Brandon Dubinsky and Michael Del Zotto. Brad Richards also scored a power play goal to answer back, when they were down by a one goal deficit.
Henrik Lundqvist also appeared back in his groove. When the Rangers are in sync (as they have displayed in their last two games), they prove why they deserve to be the Atlantic Division winners all over again.
The New York Rangers remaining nine games are pretty demanding, but that doesn't mean they aren't up for the challenge.
Here is a breakdown of the final weeks:
March 23rd against the Buffalo Sabres - The Sabres are in ninth place in the Eastern Conference and third place in the Northeast Division with 80 points, so will be playing hard against the Rangers. New York, however, has won all three games to date against the Sabres.
March 24th against the Toronto Maple Leafs - The Leafs are in 12th place in the Eastern Conference and fourth place in the Northeast Division with 72 points and have no prayer of making the playoffs. The Rangers have defeated them in both outings this season, so this should be a no-brainer.
March 27th against the Minnesota Wild - The Wild are 13th in the Western Conference and sit in fourth place in the Northwest Division with 70 points. They, like the Maple Leafs are also a lost cause for the postseason. This will be the first and only meeting between the two teams this season.
March 28th against the Winnipeg Jets - The Jets are in 10th in the Eastern Conference and third in the Southeast Division with 76 points. The Rangers have played especially well against the Jets this season, defeating them in all three meetings thus far (two of which were 3-0 shutouts).
March 30th against the Montreal Canadians - The Habs are in 15th (last) place in the Eastern Conference and fifth place in the Northeast Division with 69 points. They are having a terrible season, but have beaten the Rangers in two out of the three meetings this year, so despite their poor record, appear to have one-up on the Blueshirts.
April 1st against the Boston Bruins - The Bruins are in second place in the Eastern Conference and are in first place in the Northeast Division with 87 points. Although they have been struggling to find their earlier season glory, they still remain atop their division. The Rangers have won all three matchups against the defending Stanley Cup champs; two of which were only by one goal, but the Blueshirts have the advantage in that game I believe.
April 3rd against the Philadelphia Flyers - The Flyers are in fifth place in the Eastern Conference and third in the Atlantic Division with 92 points. While they have been playing great hockey this year, the Rangers seem to have their number, having defeated them in all five meetings this season, and there's no reason why that shouldn't continue in their final game in the regular season.
April 5th against the Pittsburgh Penguins - The Penguins are in fourth place in the Eastern Conference and a close second in the Atlantic Division with 96 points. They are on a tear lately and have defeated the Rangers in three out of the five matchups this season (so is the only team I am really concerned about).
April 7th against the Washington Capitals - The Caps are in eighth place in the Eastern Conference and second place in the Southeast Division with 80 points. The Rangers have defeated them two out of the three times they have met this season, but the Capitals are hungry to make the playoffs and are teetering on the edge, so will probably be a tough fight.
That being said, however, the Rangers know how important staying atop the Atlantic Division is for them and will stop at nothing to achieve that. They just need to stay strong and take it day-by-day and trust in what they have created this season, because it is tantamount (if not better than) to the 1994 Stanley Cup champ team.