As a team, the Rangers have undoubtedly exceeded expectations. They currently sit in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, with 38 points in 28 games.
The start to the season is even more impressive considering that the Rangers began with a seven-game road trip (including two games in Europe). All-Star defenseman Marc Staal has also yet to play this season due to concussion-like symptoms.
With that said, here are the top five storylines of the 2011-12 season so far.
1. Dan Girardi's Emergence as a Top Defenseman
With Staal being out, his defense partner Dan Girardi was expected to shoulder the load on the Rangers blue line. So far, Girardi has exceeded those expectations.
Despite leading the league in blocked shots, Girardi was, and still is, underrated in the NHL. This season has earned him some limelight. Girardi leads the NHL in average ice time per game (27:33), while contributing 12 points in 28 games. He has a +6 rating.
ESPN hockey analyst Scott Burnside ranked Girardi as the No. 3 Norris Trophy candidate for the best defenseman in the league; his league-wide visibility will continue with 24/7: Road to the Winter Classic, where he is rumored to be featured in a couple of segments.
2. Brad Richards' Impact in His First Season in New York
When Brad Richards signed with the Rangers this offseason, everybody (myself included) thought that this would be a great way to help Marian Gaborik bounce back from an off year in 2010-11. It was conceivable to think that putting Richards—one of the elite playmakers in the game—with an elite finisher like Gaborik would enhance the play of both stars.
Even though Richards and Gaborik had trouble playing on the same line, they are both playing very well this season. Richards has 11 goals and 25 points in 28 games, but he has done more than put up solid numbers. He has won faceoffs and been a quarterback on the power-play. Even though he and Gaborik didn't work well on the same line, their pairing has resulted in two top scoring lines, with Richards centering captain Ryan Callahan.
3. Stellar Goaltending From Both Rangers Netminders
As beneficial as the development and growth of the young guys has been—and as great as Richards has played—the team's MVP is unquestionably Henrik Lundqvist. How long the Rangers play beyond April falls on the Swede's shoulders. Head coach John Tortorella mentioned last season that as good as Lundqvist has been throughout his career, his game reached another level in the last quarter of 2010-11.
This season, Tortorella's statement has proven true. Lundqvist's outstanding play has become even more consistent, and his stats reflect it. Lundqvist has a 2.03 goals-against average, and a .933 save percentage—better than his career averages.
In addition to Lundqvist, backup goaltender Martin Biron has played very well. Biron is 5-1 in the six games he has started, with a 1.79 goals-against average and a .937 save percentage. As a team, the Rangers are third in the NHL in goals against per game, behind only the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues.
4. Brandon Dubinsky's Struggles
After establishing career highs in goals, assists and points in 2010-11 (as well as leading the Rangers in all of those categories), Brandon Dubinsky was rewarded a four-year and $16.8 million contract extension. However, Dubinsky is going through a prolonged slump to start 2011-12.
A valuable part of the Rangers core, Dubinsky has scored one goal and has 11 assists so far this season. And while Dubinsky is still providing other intangibles that add to his game (great penalty killing, intensity, etc.), those only go so far when the price tag is now that much higher.
Dubinsky was noticeably not considered untouchable by general manager Glen Sather when the Rangers were in talks with the Ducks about Bobby Ryan in late November.
5. Sean Avery's Up-and-Down Season
Whenever the Rangers and story lines are put together, Sean Avery's name is thrown in the mix—whether it deserves to be there or not. Avery started the season with Connecticut in the AHL, but after the Rangers 3-3-3 start, he was summoned back to New York to provide the spark that few can duplicate.
His play as of late hasn't been as effective as it was when he was called up in early November. After having his ice time cut, he was scratched for the Rangers last two games. With Rangers forwards such as Mike Rupp and Wojtek Wolski on the mend, Avery might have to pack his bags once again.
No matter what happens with Avery, it will be part of the headlines and create much debate for the "Garden Faithful."
Thanks for reading, and as a reminder (even though few people need it), the first episode of 24/7: Flyers-Rangers: Road to the NHL Winter Classic premieres tonight on HBO at 10:00 ET.
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