When I wrote the column “Going up the Charts” last October, I was chagrined to discover that I neglected to discuss John Tortorella’s work with the New York Rangers. But looking back at it now, I’m glad that I committed the oversight, because what Torts has done with the Rangers is singular and sensational.
If anyone had predicted before this season started that the Rangers would be vying with the Chicago Blackhawks to be the best team in the NHL by the All-Star break, I would have laughed them into silence.
And yet that is exactly where the Rangers are right now. They have left behind the Pittsburgh Penguins (who led the NHL during the early weeks of the season) and have dominated their regular season match-ups with the division rival Philadelphia Flyers (beating them in the Winter Classic in the process).
The question remains, though, how are they doing it?
The answer is pure late-1990s hockey: stifling defense and great penalty-killing (the Rangers are ranked second and fourth in the NHL respectively in those two categories); a very good transition game (they’re tied for third in short-handed offense); extreme physicality (the Rangers are sixth in the NHL in penalty minutes); and precious little else (the Rangers are not in the top ten in offense and their power-play is near the bottom of the league).
Despite all this, the Rangers have shown toughness, grit, and the willingness to do whatever it takes to win: in short they’re a reflection of John Tortorella.
Even though the Rangers lead the NHL Tortorella has the team playing like they’re underdogs; playing like they feel that the NHL doesn’t want them to win. (When the Rangers won the Winter Classic with a brilliant come-from-behind win, Torts couldn’t resist slanging the collective honesty and integrity of the referees thus earning a hefty fine from the league).
The key players behind this Rangers renaissance are goal-scorers Martin Gaborik and Brad Richards. Gaborik ranks among the top five in goals scored and Richards has personally won six games with his clutch shooting.
Even though the Rangers are fourth in the NHL in penalty-minutes, none of their players are in top five in individual penalty-minutes. Instead the Rangers’ ferocity is collective: forwards Ryan Callahan, Mike Rupp and the two Brandons: Gaborik and Dubinsky are the usual suspects whenever foul play is suspected.
But the real meat, bone, and sinew of the team come from its defensive contingent. Blue-liner Michael Del Zotto is a potential candidate for the Norris Trophy but it’s goalie Henrik Lundqvist who is the brightest bulb on the “Great White Way” in New York City.
Lundqvist ranks among the top five goalies in the NHL in almost all the key categories. It is Lundqvist who anchors the defense and keeps the team at its apex. If the Rangers are to triumph in the 2012 playoffs it will certainly be Henrik Lundqvist acting as the primal underwriter in that success story.
The greatest Ranger teams in winning percentage were the 1970-1972 squads. The 2011/12 team is only 1-2 points behind the former’s pace. If they can add a tiny bit extra then they can win the President’s Trophy and be the greatest Rangers time of all time. (The last Rangers team to win the President’s Trophy was the 1993/94 team—who also were the last Rangers team to win the Stanley Cup—interesting thought to consider).
If the Rangers maintain then I would not be surprised to see the Rangers and the Bruins in the conference finals. Indeed I would like to make a bold prediction that the 2012 Stanley Cup finals will be an Original Six match-up (the last time that happened was in 1979 when the Montreal Canadiens faced, ironically enough, the New York Rangers).
History may indeed repeat itself and if it does then the lights will be burning bright on Broadway for many months to come.