At the start of hockey season, experts contended that while very talented, the New York Rangers were simply too young and underdeveloped a team to make a statement in an Eastern Conference headlined by superstars Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby.
The season is now a third of the way through and despite some fluke losses, the Rangers are looking more and more like a playoff team each game. With previously unheard of or forgotten players stepping up and establishing a presence on the ice, the team looks as though it could indeed make the playoffs (they would be the No. 6 seed were the season to end today) and do well in them.
That being said, here are ten New York Rangers I feel will be instrumental in the team's success for the rest of the season and, ultimately, in the playoffs.
When Glen Sather first signed him, fans groaned. Here was a man who was the Islanders' backup last season and didn't fare so well (9-14-4 with a 3.27 GAA). Plus, he had run himself out of Buffalo and Philadelphia.
Biron has silenced his critics by being the best backup goaltender the Rangers have had in years, posting a 5-2-0 record with a respectable 2.38 GAA. With three-time Vezina Trophy finalist Henrik Lundqvist handling the starting duties, this is a goalie team that has the potential to duplicate the success of the Vezina-winning tandem of Eddie Giacomin and Gilles Villemure.
If John Tortorella uses Biron well down the stretch (and if Lundqvist steps it up a bit), there is no doubt in my mind that the Rangers' goaltending will be a force to be reckoned with come playoff time.
This young man from Hastings, Minnesota impressed Coach Tortorella enough in the preseason to earn a full-time roster spot. In the first game of the season against Buffalo, he showed why he was worth that much as he became the first player in Rangers history (and fourth in NHL history) to record a hat trick in his first career game.
Despite being just 20 years old and notching only four goals since then, Stepan is fourth among rookies with 17 points and has proven to be impressive on the defensive side of the puck. Long story short, this young man has a lot of potential and with his skills improving daily, will hopefully be a force on the team for years to come.
Now, I know I'm cheating by including a tie so that it's really 11 players rather than 10, but this guy is just too good to pass over. As a rookie player, he's every coach's dream. He comes to work everyday to play hard and most importantly, learn hard.
He's not the Al MacInnis-type defenseman who will spend one shift grabbing the puck and attacking the net and then another trying to do something that will put him in the penalty box, but Sauer is doing just enough to establish a strong, tough presence on the blue line that the Rangers have been lacking the past few seasons.
Despite having just four points in 24 games, Sauer's +/- of eight to go with 25 penalty minutes should be enough to keep him a regular on the third blue line. His toughness is something rarely seen in rookies, and it will only serve to help the team in the long run.
Fedotenko was a non-roster invitee to training camp, before preseason games even started. After spending two years with the Pittsburgh Penguins and winning a Stanley Cup with them, he reconnected with John Tortorella, with whom he won his first Stanley Cup as a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
This feisty winger impressed enough in the preseason to earn a one-year contract (worth about $1 million), along with a spot on the starting line (along with numbers five and one on this list). He only has 12 points (5 goals, 7 assists), but has played his heart out night after night and the 7 +/- shows it.
Barring another gaffe by Glen Sather, look for Ruslan Fedotenko to put his heart on the line in every game as he helps the Rangers back to the postseason.
Now, I know that he hasn't played very often. Most of the games he has played his performance has been underwhelming at best. But based on his recent appearances, Matt Gilroy is definitely someone to keep your eye on for the rest of the season.
He's the type of defenseman who needs to play regularly in order to be effective and despite being part of a team with a crowded blue line, he has really made a case for more playing time in recent games. His skills on the forecheck have won some games, and his defense has been solid too as evidenced by his +/- of four. And he's just a few shots on goal away from his first score of the season.
He only has three points on the season, but keep an eye out for Gilroy to get more playing time as the season goes on. Team management sees something in him and it's only a matter of time before he comes out of his shell.
I know that he's in the midst of a pretty bad slump right now, but trust me when I say that Artem Anisimov will bounce back.
He got off to a very hot start with 15 points (7 goals, 8 assists), but has fallen under the radar since then. Still, he is someone to watch closely. His size (6'4, 200 pounds) and natural ability will only help him in the long run.
Plus, let's not forget he's only 22 years old and continuing to develop his skills. Once he's back on his regular line with Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky, I have no doubt that Anisimov will be a key figure in leading the team to a playoff appearance.
After the Rangers traded for him last season, Prust made an immediate impact as an enforcer. He impressed Glen Sather enough that he was re-signed to a two-year contract, and he has continued to prove his worth this season.
A consistent starter on the opening shift lineup, Brandon Prust has been a pesky presence on the forecheck as well as having some clutch offensive moments. He has 10 points on the season, four less than he had all of last year, and his 76 penalty minutes have given the Rangers another pest on the ice apart from Sean Avery.
Look for Prust to continue improving over the course of the season. His skills cannot be overlooked, as his subtle +/- of three indicates.
I know this is an odd choice, but don't click over to the next slide just yet. I'll be the first to admit that Eminger's stats aren't what they should be. He only has three points and his +/- is less than desirable, but he still makes this list.
Acquired in a trade with the Anaheim Ducks over the summer, Steve Eminger deserves recognition for one reason. He puts his body on the line every single game. He is second on the team in blocked shots and was instrumental in a victory over the Penguins earlier in the season.
As long as he keeps putting both heart and soul into his defense, look for Eminger to be a key member of the Rangers' blue line on the march to the playoffs.
While Brandon Dubinsky isn't what most people would call a "sleeper," I still think he deserves a spot on the countdown. Why? Because this season, he appears to have finally become the player fans hoped he'd be after Sather drafted him in 2004.
He leads the team with 24 points (13 goals, 11 assists). Keep in mind, that's after averaging only about 40 for the past three seasons. ESPN projects him to finish the season with 36 goals, and playing on the same line as Ryan Callahan can only help those numbers become reality.
Fans should also watch for him on the checking line, with Prust and No. 1 on this list. With the near-perfect offensive and defensive tools, Dubinsky is sure to be a perennial NHL All-Star once his communication on the ice improves.
He's been a regular on the blue line for the past three seasons but this year, Dan Girardi seems to have finally broken out.
A typical "stay-on-the-line" defenseman, he has a respectable 14 points (two goals, 12 assists), and his +/- is currently at seven. While those stats are all well and good, Girardi makes the No. 2 spot not only because he leads the league with 86 blocked shots, but because of his heart. He's chasing down opposing players every game, diving in front of the net to stop a puck, just playing exceptional defense.
Watch as Girardi continues to improve the rest of the season as he and Alternate Captain Marc Staal form a dangerous squad on defense.
What can be said about this man that hasn't already been said this season? He has simply been unbelievable. With his 6' 7" frame creating an imposing presence on the ice, Brian Boyle is having a career year.
He has already surpassed last year's goal total of four (his one-time career high). Currently, he has 11. His +/- is at six, and his defense hasn't been bad either. Give him some time to work on his passing game (he only has two assists), and Brian Boyle will be a Ranger who has it all: size, speed and strength.
Keep an eye out for the man known as "the Boyler" to continue improving throughout the season as his heart and skills are exhibited night after night.
Special thanks to hardcore Rangers fan Nikki Lichter for the pictures.