NEW YORK – With all the talk about what the Rangers need to do at next Monday’s trade deadline to improve for a run to the Stanley Cup, an important fact seems to have been misplaced.
This team, this seemingly-flawed group that apparently isn’t as good as last year’s Stanley Cup finalists, is just three points from the conference lead and two points off the division lead after dispatching the Blue Jackets 4-3 in a shootout Sunday evening at Madison Square Garden.
This group, with a supposedly-flawed group of forwards and a struggling defense, this team that battled early-season injuries to top-flight center Derek Stepan, captain Ryan McDonagh, and defenseman Dan Boyle, is now playing without goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. Still, they’ve proven themselves good enough to be listed among the conference’s elite.
After going 7-7-4 over their first 18 games, the Rangers (36-16-6, 78 points) have gone 29-9-2 since Nov. 19, vaulting into second place in the Metropolitan Division with 24 games remaining.
Their 33 wins in regulation or overtime is third in the league, and they stand just two points behind the first-place Islanders with three games in hand.
“We’re finding ways to gain points, get some wins in different fashions,” said captain Ryan McDonagh. “That’s the biggest thing at this stage of the season. Everybody’s fighting, it’s turning into playoff mode.”
“We got the standings up in the dressing room, so it’s hard not to see it,” said forward Rick Nash. “We got to worry about ourselves, worry about our game, our process, and our game-plan.”
On Sunday, they earned two more points thanks to the suddenly-surging stick of Martin St. Louis, who had his second multi-goal game of the season and 53rd of his career. Since going 15 games without a goal, he’s now scored a total of four goals in his last four games.
It wasn’t pretty for the Rangers on Sunday night, not by a long shot. After jumping out to a 3-0 lead early in the second period they gave it all back, allowing the game-tying goal with 4:19 left in regulation while being outshot 8-1 in the third period.
“We’re just better than that,” St. Louis said. “I’m not concerned, I know we’re better than that. This won’t be a trend – it can’t be a trend.”
“It’s a concern,” said Nash. “Our third periods gotta be a lot better. The last ten-game stretch, we’ve given away leads and we got to bunker down on that.”
“We know we’ve got a couple areas of our game that we need to improve on,” Vigneault said. “As far as I can tell we’re two points behind the top spot [in the division], so we must be doing something right.”
Sloppy performance notwithstanding, the Rangers are now 7-1-2 in their last ten games without Lundqvist. As Vigneault said, they’re doing something right.
“We had confidence in Cam [Talbot] and we had confidence in our system,” said McDonagh of losing the team’s No. 1 netminder. “Obviously there’s no question Hank is a big part of our success, but with Cam there, he’s just as calm and composed.”
Since Feb. 6, 2010, the Rangers are 140-1-9 in their last 150 games when leading after two periods. They’re the only NHL team since ’99-’00, the first year teams earned a point for a loss after regulation, with no more than one regulation loss over a span of at least 150 games when leading after 40 minutes.
The Rangers have points in eight straight games (6-0-2).
The Rangers improved to 16-4-1 this season against Metropolitan Division opponents.