By Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor, The Sports Network
Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) – A few weeks ago it seemed like the New York Rangers were more likely to have a “Mumpy” Christmas than a merry one.
Although the reigning Eastern Conference champions are not yet rid of the illness that has plagued several NHL teams this season, New York is beginning to awaken from its sluggish start to 2014-15.
With one game remaining before the NHL’s brief Christmas break, the Rangers have worked themselves within striking distance of the Metropolitan Division’s third and final automatic playoff spot.
In fact, if the Blueshirts beat the visiting Washington Capitals in regulation on Tuesday, New York would tie the Caps in points and take over third place in the division by way of tiebreaker.
You may not have even noticed the Rangers were struggling this season before they rattled off victories in six straight games heading into Tuesday.
New York was 11-10-4 prior to the current run of victories. Sure, that was a disappointing start for a team that made it to the Stanley Cup Finals only several months ago, but it wasn’t the type of awful start that garners headlines. It also wasn’t particularly notable considering the Rangers got off to a slow start in 2013-14 under Alain Vigneault before coming together later in the regular season and, obviously, in the playoffs.
While the NHL’s mumps scare has touched the club in the last month or so, infecting forwards Derick Brassard, Tanner Glass and most recently Lee Stempniak, the Rangers were dealing with roster issues well before the disease struck the roster.
After losing several pieces from their conference championship team in the offseason, including forwards Brian Boyle, Brad Richards and Benoit Pouliot and defenseman Anton Stralman, the Rangers were then forced to play the first month of the season without top centerman Derek Stepan. Team captain and star defenseman Ryan McDonagh then missed almost all of November with a shoulder injury before returning to his minutes-eating role on the blue line.
While New York survived without McDonagh and Stepan, who made his season debut on Nov. 8 and has since recorded a point in 14 of his 19 games, the club is still getting used to life without Boyle, Stralman and Co. But the Rangers needed to let some of those guys go in order to keep their young core intact while keeping the salary cap situation in check.
Now, with wins in six straight games it seems like this current crop of Blueshirts is forging an identity of its own. If New York manages to repeat last season’s playoff success and make another deep run in the postseason, the club could point to a recent 4-0 road trip as the period when things started to jell.
Although familiar faces have left and new ones have taken their place, many things have stayed the same in New York. The club is still anchored by franchise goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and the deep defensive corps that plays in front of him and Cam Talbot, who is becoming an increasingly reliable backup between the pipes.
However, one major improvement has come from within, as Rick Nash has regained his superstar form for the club after a down year.
Nash led the Rangers with 26 goals during the 2013-14 regular season, but also tied the lowest point total of his career with 39 points over 65 games, matching his output as a rookie with Columbus in 2002-03.
Even more troubling, however, was Nash’s three goals over 25 playoff games. When you carry an annual cap hit of $7.8 million through the 2017-18 season like Nash does, that type of postseason drought is troubling, to say the least.
Nash also happened to turn 30 years old over the summer, so another down season in 2014-15 would hasten talk of the winger’s downfall.
Instead, Nash has kept the detractors at bay by being the deadliest and most consistent offensive weapon for the Rangers this season. He leads the club in both goals (20) and points (33) and also is topping the club with a plus-14 rating.
Until going pointless over the last two games against Carolina, Nash hadn’t been kept off the scoresheet in two consecutive outings at all this season.
Although the early part of the season was marked by inconsistency in terms of wins and losses the Rangers never fell too far off the pace, only losing more than two games in a row on two occasions. The up-and-down start to the season wasn’t impressive for a defending conference champion, but it at least kept Vigneault’s one hot streak from getting back in the middle of the playoff conversation.
As a result of sticking together, the Blueshirts have a chance to match the Capitals on Tuesday, the final night of play before the league goes on a three-day hiatus for Christmas. Seeing as it’s the first of four meetings this season between New York and Washington, the game could set the tone for the rest of the 2014-15 series, which could ultimately determine a playoff spot.
The Rangers of all teams know it’s a long season and tonight’s test versus the Capitals is just one part of an 82-game set. But, with the way they’re playing right now, New York isn’t keen on seeing the hot streak end either.
“It’s our first look at them this season so we want to go out there and put our best foot forward,” defenseman Matt Hunwick said of the showdown with the Caps. “We’ve been on a good streak, so we’d like to go into the holiday break with another win.”