At the 2012 All-Star break, the New York Rangers are in first place in the Eastern Conference with 66 points and have the second-best record in the league.
Yes, you read that right. Nobody saw this coming even when they signed center Brad Richards to a huge deal during the off-season. What has made this team so deadly so far into the season is the production from their young talent and leadership from their veterans.
Head coach John Tortorella has this team playing at their highest since the 1994 season, the same year they beat the Vancouver Canucks for the Stanley Cup. Being realistic, it is early to be saying this might be the year, but how Torts has handled this team is brilliant. Whenever they’re slacking at practice after a big win, Torts makes them skate even harder. His fiery personality keeps the players intact and earns him respect. He even did something I’m shocked about; releasing Sean Avery. That guy was a cancer when he was around and kept on coming back. Ending ties with him has helped the Rangers become distraction-free.
The Rangers are also using many old-school tactics that have made them one of the more dangerous teams in the league. The first is giving up the body. Even when a player breaks his stick, these players are disciplined enough to get in front of the puck and sacrifice themselves to help their goalie. Another thing is checking and fighting. The Rangers hold the lead for most fighting minutes this season, and have played very physical. By smashing players into the boards and going all-out for the puck, they wear down the other team while keeping a fast paced style that makes it difficult for the other team to keep up.
Let’s not forget the impact of Brad Richards. The Rangers were lacking a center and leader when Chris Drury left. The former Dallas Star inked a nine-year deal over the off-season, and at this point it’s looking good. Richards has 17 goals, 15 assists, and 32 points entering the break. It’s not even the numbers but rather his intangibles on how he makes everyone around him better; most notably Marion Gaborik. Gaborik has been a scoring machine, netting 25 at the break. Remember when most fans wanted his head a few years ago? Now that the Rangers got that established leader and help in Richards, Gaborik is showing what he can really do on the ice.
Now we look down to the youngest and stacked position for the Blueshirts: the defense. It was established after last season that their defensive leader was Marc Staal. Once Staal got hurt, many reporters and fans were questioning if this defense would hold up until his return. Then came a 27-year old man by the name of Dan Girardi. He stepped up when they needed him and is now one of the three Rangers all-stars this season (Gaborik, Lundqvist). It’s not even just Girardi, but everyone else on defense that has made an impact. Examples of other young defenders who have stepped up are Michael Del Zotto, Ryan McDonough, and Michael Sauer. What’s scary is they’re all in their mid-20s, so there is plenty of youth and experience to go around.
Last, and certainly not least, Henrik Lundqvist. They call him “The King” for a reason. You could make a case that he was the reason why the Rangers were the eighth seed the past four years and even a playoff team. Now that he has the right surrounding cast, his talents are showing. At this point in the season, he’s only giving up a career-low 1.93 goals allowed per game, with a 21-10 record. Lundqvist has also made many big saves, including the one on the penalty shot against the Philadelphia Flyers in the Winter Classic.
The Rangers don’t have one superstar, but they have a bunch of young stars that are willing to sacrifice themselves for each other. Their chemistry is one of the best in the league. Of course it’s too early to say they’re going to go to the Cup, but this team has all the pieces in place to be a champion. It’s a good story for the Blueshirts so far, and I’m only hoping they can keep up the pace.