As we approach the quarter mark of the NHL season, the New York Rangers are just two points away from being tied for first in the Eastern Conference, with two games in hand on the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The truth is, the Rangers have a lot to be happy about so far in the first month of the 2011-2012 campaign.
From the endurance of an epic road trip to returning to a newly renovated Madison Square Garden, the Blueshirts will be motivated to make their 85th anniversary a very special one.
Although a seven-game win streak can be enough to make any hometown fan become overzealous about what will happen next, the early success for New York this season is anything but a fluke.
Here are five reasons why the New York Rangers should be taken seriously this season as possible Cup contenders.
It is probably the same story every year. The New York Rangers, like every other New York team, can afford to extend the largest contracts to players in the pursuit of a championship.
Before the salary cap days, the Rangers would sign the league's biggest names to enormous contracts, but since their last Cup in 1994, they have not come anywhere near winning again.
After the salary cap was established, New York still did everything in their ability to attract the most prominent candidates in the offseason free agent pools, and have been successful in doing so.
In the past, they have been known to sign players that were seen to be "washed up", "past their prime", or just complete underachievers as soon as they stepped foot in Midtown Manhattan. Names such as Eric Lindros, Pavel Bure, Wade Redden, Markus Naslund, Scott Gomez and Chris Drury are just some of the familiar high-salary signings that did not quite pan out for the Rangers.
The truth is, on paper, the Rangers will always have a roster that has championship potential.
Today, the New York Rangers still have a team of players with the potential to devastate. However, there is one difference. As opposed to prior seasons, these players are actually in their prime or at least approaching their prime, and also seem more motivated than ever to win.
Big names include: Henrik Lundqvist, Marian Gaborik, Brad Richards, Marc Staal, Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky. At one point or another, these players have all been in talks of having superstar potential, and if all of them can play to their expectations, it is inevitable that the Rangers will be a tough team to beat.
Right now, these guys are only heating up simultaneously, which is still better than anything before, and New York is looking unstoppable. One can only imagine how potent this team could be if all of these players are playing to their potential at the same time.
So far this season, five of the six are starting to get into top form, and when Marc Staal gets back, watch out.
What more can anyone say about King Henry?
Henrik Lundqvist is arguably the best goaltender in hockey today, and has been one of the main reasons that the Rangers have had regular season success in the past few years.
Lundqvist has also been the reason that the Rangers have made some of their recent early-round playoff exits interesting, instead of being sweeps.
It has been witnessed that an elite goaltender can completely bail his team out and give them a chance to compete for a championship (i.e. Jean-Sebastian Giguere, Mikka Kiprusoff, Dwayne Roloson), and just because of that, the Rangers have a chance.
In addition to Hank, the Rangers have a very experienced backup goalie in Martin Biron.
Not only has Marty been in high-pressure playoff situations before, but he also has the skill of a starting goalie.
Based on Biron's early performance so far, the Rangers could have a top-three goaltender tandem in the league.
In the first 16 games of the season, there has been one thing consistent with the New York Rangers, and that is structure.
The one thing that always remained so far was the team's ability to play in accordance with each other and with their goaltender. They also have an incredible ability to block shots.
Defensive structure is something the Rangers have exercised well in the past two seasons. Often, when New York would lose games, it would be due to a lack of scoring, not due to a lack of ability to play around Lundqvist.
So far this season, not only have teammates made their goalie's job easier night in and night out, but the forwards are also finding the offensive structure needed to put the puck in the net. This is a newborn concept for this team that was absent in the past few seasons.
To be specific in all of the above, Marian Gaborik and Derek Stepan have displayed telepathic executions similar to the Sedin brothers in a few games already this season. Michael Del Zotto has improved significantly on defense. Dan Girardi is starting to look like a mature blue-line leader and point man.
Brad Richards is starting to settle in, and is looking like the high-vision, elite playmaker that he has been known to be. Ryan Callahan is turning into a tremendous two-way player and a talented scorer. Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov are letting their hands do the talking, as they have been great setup guys, especially for rebounds.
The fourth line is doing their job. 20 of the 24 Rangers who have played this year have plus ratings. Martin Biron has been outstanding. Last but not least, Henrik Lundqvist is starting to look like himself.
Nothing spells structure better than a team in which every player is doing as he is expected to help the team win.
Similar to the defending champion Boston Bruins, the Rangers have a bit of everything, from toughness and physicality, to pure talent, to strong defense and top-end goaltending, to agitating qualities. If they can continue to excel in all of these aspects, they will be an impenetrable Blue Fortress.
Like many other teams, the New York Rangers have a core that is expected to see improvement as the years go on.
Most players on this squad are either approaching their prime or in their prime. The Blueshirts are currently in the right phase of development, in which a championship window of opportunity is in sight for the next few years.
Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky are expected to be a huge part of the Rangers' success, and are both looking like they are on the verge of a breakout season.
Marc Staal and Dan Girardi are also young defensemen who are expected to become more and more solid with each passing season.
Michael Del Zotto, Derek Stepan, Ryan McDonagh and Artem Anisimov all have their whole careers ahead of them, and are also expected to become top-end players as they gain more experience in the league. So far this year, their development processes have looked like they have received turbo boosts.
The Rangers did not undergo a makeover in the offseason, but they added some essential pieces to their troops.
The addition of Brad Richards during the free agent frenzy gave New York the best first-line center that they have had in awhile. The signing also complemented many goal-scorers on the team. Brad Richards knows what it takes to win a championship, and can bring his experience to this Rangers team. Right now he seems to be playing very well with every line that he has been placed on.
Other signings, such as Mike Rupp and Jeff Woywitka, also provides the team with role players who seem to be fitting in nicely in their positions. They could also be key ingredients to a successful playoff run.
Need I say more?
This man has been able to completely throw franchise superstars off their game during the playoffs and turn them into non-factors.
Sean Avery was the absolute reason why the Rangers were able to defeat the Atlanta Thrashers in 2007 and the New Jersey Devils in 2008 as easily as they did. Who is to say he can't do it again when his team needs it the most?
After being placed on waivers and then finally receiving another chance to play on the team, Avery is looking very determined to remain on the roster and help this team as much as he can, especially while everyone is feeding off each others' excellence. He has shown his scoring touch as well in the few games that he has played, and appears to be playing his heart out every shift.
If the New York Rangers need that extra drive, motivation or step to push this team to the franchise's fifth Stanley Cup, Sean Avery is the man to do it.
If the Sedins thought they had it bad with Brad Marchand during the Finals, they haven't seen anything yet.