First, some numbers.
228: This is the number of days since Adam Henrique scored the overtime heartbreaker that sent the rival New Jersey Devils to the Stanley Cup Finals.
113: This is the number of those aforementioned days that the NHL was in lockout mode.
48: This is the number of regular season games the aforementioned Devils played in the '95 season before running the table in the Stanley Cup playoffs, sweeping the heavily-favored Detroit Red Wings on the way to the first of three Stanley Cups.
51: The number of wins the Rangers amassed last season, on the way to becoming Eastern Conference regular season champions.
11: This number represents where the New York Rangers ranked in goals scored over the 2011-2012 campaign
228 days ago, it was incredibly apparent that, after being eliminated in six games by the rival New Jersey Devils, that the New York Rangers needed to improve their team scoring. They consistently struggled in putting the puck in the net towards the end of the season, and continued the inconsistent finishing going into the postseason.
The Rangers pushed it to the limit on the road to their Eastern Conference loss, going seven games in the opening playoff round against a sub-par Ottawa Senators side. Then, in the next round, they were again pushed to seven games against a Washington Capitals team that played a fish-out-of-water, gritty style of hockey, for which the Caps were not built.
What coach John Tortorella and GM Glen Sather built, however, was a culture of discipline and sacrifice, where each player, from high-priced superstar center Brad Richards to playoff phenom Chris Kreider, had each other’s back, and when one of them was in trouble, another player stepped up.
That’s the kind of team and culture that can win championships.
So, when the Rangers seemingly lost out on the Rick Nash trade deadline sweepstakes, there was very little reason to panic. Tortorella and Sather wanted to see if this group of role players could pull it off. And they came close, resting on the well-styled shoulders of their Vezina goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist.
And then they hit the wall that was called the New Jersey Devils.
So, in July, Sather finally got his man. High-flying forward Rick Nash seems to be the missing link to make the top two lines work. Sather proved that he’s better at pulling off trades than free-agent signings. The Nash trade, which saw crowd favorite Brandon Dubinsky, Artem “Shotgun Stick” Anisimov and Tim Erixon sent to the Columbus Blue Jackets, sacrificed very little in comparison to what who got in return.
At the end of the day, the Rangers made out on the better end of this deal. Add Arron “Nighty Night” Asham to replace the newly-minted Canadien Brandon Prust and a fourth line of new Blueshirts Jeff Halpern, Tyler Pyatt and veteran Mike “I Salute You” Rupp, and law enforcement will not be a problem.
But who will score? Will Rick Nash struggle out of the gate to find chemistry with Brad Richards? Will Chris Kreider make the team or will he continue with the growing pains he has been plagued with during his work stoppage-induced Connecticut residency? Will Marian Gaborik avoid injury and continue to learn not to be soft on D?
One thing that seems to be a constant is Henrik Lundqvist. During the lockout, he trained on his own, sometimes in his home in Sweden and sometimes here in North America. One thing became apparent during the Operation: Hat Trick tilt: The King is ready to go. He’s ready to defend his Vezina title and help build on his masterful postseason performance.
In this lockout-shortened season, John Tortorella will need to manage this team’s focus. They will need a fast start to this sprint to the playoffs that the regular season will prove to be. Shot blocking will again be the order of the day, and responsible defense will be the bread and butter of this Rangers team.
The defense will again be anchored by one of the league’s finest shut down defensemen, the healthy and concussion-free Marc Staal. Add in the boy-turned-man Ryan McDonough and Dan “Ice Blue Eyes” Girardi, and the Rangers again have one of the youngest and best defensive corps in the NHL.
Clearly, the Rangers have a window of opportunity to keep all their parts and make a real run for Lord Stanley’s blessed silver chalice. Where does everyone end up after this season? It doesn’t matter. The lockout? That’s old news, and water under the bridge. The air in New York has been crisp and clean, winter is here. The time for the Rangers to shine is now.
According to sources close the team, Michael Sauer will miss the entire 2013 season due to concussion symptoms suffered after a Dion Phaneuf hit. Dion, meet Arron Asham.
On this writer’s home front, my wife-to-be cannot be happier that the NHL season is finally getting under way. Thank you, Scot Beckenbaugh, for saving my relationship. You are a scholar and a gentleman.