By Dubi Silverstein
There are several well known marks of a good team. One is being able to take advantage of a good team playing their second game in two nights, as the Rangers did in a 3-0 whitewashing of the lead-footed Ducks on Sunday. Another is being able to take advantage of a bad team, which is what they did the next night in a 7-2 rout of the lowly woeful Leafs. By the time the Rangers had finished raking, shredding, and bagging the Leafs,they had won five straight by a combined score of 22-9.
A lot of credit was going to head coach John Tortorella for his stringent offseason conditioning requirements, which translated into a rigorous three-day training camp in which the first two days were devoted to skating, skating, and more skating, with not a puck in sight. The Rangers were all over the Ducks and Leafs from the drop of the puck, neither opponent prepared for the onslaught of forechecking. And they ratcheted up the energy level in the third periods of both games when the score was too close for comfort—scoreless against the Ducks despite total Ranger domination and just an uncomfortable one-goal lead against the winless Leafs.
With three goals in the third period on Sunday and four more on Monday, the Rangers were simply slaughtering opponents in the final twenty minutes—they won their third periods by a combined 12-3 over their first six games. "I think it comes down to conditioning," Dan Girardi said. "It goes back to camp, as physically demanding as it was," Chris Drury added. "You just can't go through what we went through and not be a tighter team, but also in good shape." Even Sean Avery was beating the drum: "Torts told us before the game, great teams are the teams that stay consistent no matter what the score is or whom you are playing."
"We have had some good third periods and we had another one tonight," Tortorella said after the Toronto game. "I think the conditioning had something to do with it. That is an important part, finishing the game." But hang onto your hats, Ranger fans—we've heard this story before. Exactly a year ago, in fact, when the Rangers had an identical record after six games (5-1-0) on the strength of some third period heroics. It's only October—we all know how quickly the success of last year's record-setting October evaporated. In April, when it counted, the Rangers were, by Tortorella's admission, a tired team. Can they keep up his pace through the long regular season and grueling playoff grind?
Well, there are a number of significant differences that suggest a positive answer to that question. To begin with, the Rangers are 5-1 with Marian Gaborik as their leading scorer, not Aaron Voros, whom no one expected to maintain his torrid early pace of last season (indeed, he's been a healthy scratch much of the time since then). They're not squeaking out these wins as they were last October. And their power play continues to play a big role, scoring twice against Anaheim and twice more against the Leafs to make it 7-for-22 (32 percent) since opening the season 0-for-9 (a deceptive figure that reflects only an inability to finish, not overall ineffectiveness).
But it's going to get rocky somewhere down the long road—there's a reason why NBA teams don't apply the full court press full time, why NFL defenses don't blitz on every passing play, why major league baseball pitchers don't throw the fastball every time. Time will tell how well the Rangers' conditioning holds up as they continue to apply Tortorella's pressure game. So far, though, so good.