The New York Rangers are likely going to clinch the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference this weekend and have a legitimate shot at winning the Stanley Cup come June. Are you shocked? Are you confused? Are you surprised? One week ago, the Rangers had 99 points and were on a one game losing streak after going 4-6-0 in their last 10 games played.
The Pittsburgh Penguins had 98 points and were on a one game win streak after going 9-1-0 in their last 10 games played and they had Sidney Crosby back. At that point it was all but certain that the surging Penguins were going to continue steam rolling opponents on route to securing the division, the conference and the No. 1 seed overall.
At this current point in time the Rangers are 50-21-7 with 107 points and are on a four game win streak and they are 8-2-0 in their last ten games played. The Penguins, on the other hand, are 48-24-6 with 102 points and are on a one game win streak after bouncing back against the Buffalo Sabres after previously dropping two straight to the New York Islanders. Two losses to the Islanders and giving up eight goals against the Ottawa Senators is alarming.
When the Rangers got chilly, the Penguins warmed up. Now that the Penguins have shown some cracks, the Rangers have returned to form and are getting into playoff shape.
Richards is one of the hottest players in the NHL and will finish the month of March with 23 points. During the month he scored seven goals and assisted on 15 others. Due to his recent outburst, Richards is on pace to hit the 70-point-plateau, which would be only seven points off last season.
Additionally, Richards has been a big reason why Marian Gaborik has been lighting opponents up. Gaborik scored 21 points in March. Those numbers consisted of 10 goals and 11 assists. On the year overall, Gaborik has 39 goals and 34 assists for 73 points. It has been quite a rebound year for the Slovak sniper who will be crucial for the Rangers come playoff time.
It has been said that good defense and goaltending wins championships. The Rangers have good defense and an amazing goaltender. Henrik Lundqvist has had his best year as a Ranger and is on pace for his first 40-win season.
Lundqvist is 7-2-0 in his last nine starts and has an overall G.A.A. of 1.91 and a Sv% of .932. Lundqvist is second in the NHL with eight shutouts and is considered a lock to win the Vezina. At this point his top competition is Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings.
No matter how you slice it, the Rangers will go as far as Henrik can take them. Based on how he has played all year, the Rangers could go very far in the playoffs.
The Rangers are being supported in net and up top with their star forwards, but they are also receiving some top secondary production from key forwards and defensemen.
Michael Del Zotto has 10 goals and 31 assists for a total of 41 points and additionally he is a plus 21. This has been quite the bounce back year for Del Zotto and he will be an integral player moving forward.
Also on the blueline is Ryan McDonagh who is a plus 28 which puts his third in the league amongst defensemen. McDonagh's great play in New York likely gives Bob Gainey ulcers every time he reads McDonagh's name in a box score.
When it was announced that Marc Staal was not going to start the year with New York, fans felt worried, however, McDonagh and Dan Girardi really stepped up, carried the load and set the tone on the blueline. Both are going to be vital in shutting down the opposition's top forwards in the postseason.
There have also been players like Brandon Prust, Carl Hagelin, Brian Boyle, Ruslan Fedotenko and Derek Stepan who at times have had an impact. Boyle, Prust and Fedotenko are all key forwards on the penalty kill aspect of special teams.
Boyle is also a clutch face-off guy who the Rangers can rely on. He is a gritty heart and soul guy who fits the character of this team.
Then there is Carl Hagelin and Derek Stepan. This pair of "kids" continues to grow and trend in the right direction. Hagelin has 60 games under his belt and 14 goals and 24 assists along with it for a total of 38 points. The speedy Swede is also a key forward on the penalty kill. His speed is an asset that allows the Rangers to transition from defense to offense.
Derek Stepan is also a product of the system and is continuing to have an impact. After a successful 45 point rookie season, Stepan has stepped up his game and has 50 points to date. What is impressive is that Stepan is showing that he can both score key goals and distribute the puck. If this is a sign of better things to come, the Rangers really have a solid playmaker in the making.
What player has been the most impressive?
Last but not least is "the captain" Ryan Callahan. What else can you say about him but "wow"?Callahan has 25 goals and 23 assists for 53 points and would have likely hit 60 points this year had he not suffered a minor ankle injury. Callahan is a forward who sacrifices his body. He is second amongst forwards with 86 blocked shots and is 5th in the league overall with 262 hits.
Callahan has really adjusted well to wearing the "C" this season and embodies everything it means to be a Ranger. What better way would there be for him to conclude his inaugural season as captain then by hoisting Lord Stanley's Cup? It would be a storybook ending to a Cinderella story as the Rangers are a mere three points away from jumping from No.8 in the conference to No.1 in the NHL after one season's time.
John Tortorella has done a great job behind the bench pulling the strings and pushing the right buttons at the right moments. He has a vision and has done a good job leading the team in the right direction.
Some credit also has to be thrown Glen Sather's way as he kept the roster and prospect pool intact at the end of the deadline. He is giving the team a chance to prove themselves, and if that isn't the ultimate vote of confidence, than what is? If all goes to plan Chris Kreider can become the Rangers' post deadline acquisition thanks to Sather's hesitation to trading him in a deal for Rick Nash.
The last time the Rangers won 50 or more games, they won the Stanley Cup. The last time the team won a Presidents' Trophy, they won the Stanley Cup. You can argue that the Rangers have some flaws and there wouldn't be any disagreement because flaws do exist.
How far will the Rangers go in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs?
However, with the roster as it currently is constructed, you can't say that a team with 50 wins and the best record in the NHL doesn't have a legitimate shot at winning it all. As the Rangers finish their season, they will be tested. This isn't dumb luck, nor is it a fluke. The Rangers are for real and they are ready to prove it in the postseason.
However, at this point, it appears the Rangers will sew up the division and conference by the end of this weekend. There is something special happening in New York and the Rangers are doing it #therightway.
Tom Urtz Jr is an NHL featured columnist.
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