As Brandon Dubinsky put the gloss on a 3-1 win over the New Jersey Devils on Wednesday night with an empty-net goal six seconds from time, the New York Rangers collectively slapped the exclamation mark on a strong year for the organisation. The Rangers won’t play again until New Years Day when they visit the Tampa Bay Lightning, the team that sits directly above them in the Eastern Conference standings by a solitary point.
Dubinsky’s goal sealed the deal on a tight win for the Blueshirts at the Prudential Center. Henrik Lundqvist made 43 saves in perhaps his finest performance of the season so far, whilst Brian Boyle scored his 14th goal of the year off the back of another superb outing for the former LA Kings project. Boyle has continued his strong play throughout the first half of the season, working alongside Brandon Prust and Ruslan Fedotenko on the Rangers’ third line to provide much needed offensive support to the likes of Dubinsky and Marian Gaborik.
The Rangers’ offence has been stretched by an injury sustained by alternate captain Ryan Callahan during a 4-1 win in Pittsburgh on December 15. Callahan, arguably the Blueshirts best player this season with 10 goals and 13 assists through 32 games, dove out to block a shot during a Penguins powerplay, breaking his hand with a 6-8 week timeline for return.
The game itself provided another marker for a young Rangers team that’s taken to comebacks this season. Henrik Lundqvist kept the team in the game after an early Evgeni Malkin strike, stopping 24 shots before Erik Christensen, Alex Frolov, Artem Anisimov and Boyle scored four times in the space of six minutes to seal a dramatic third period turnaround.
The Blueshirts took advantage of a listless Washington Capitals team three days prior, routing the visitors in a 7-0 win at Madison Square Garden, Lundqvist again making 24 saves as Callahan and Dubinsky combined to pick off the underachieving Capitals.
Outside of a mistake-filled 4-1 loss in Philadelphia on December 18, the Blueshirts have managed to remain competitive in almost all of their games. Derek Stepan, currently third in rookie scoring across the NHL, has recorded 17 points throughout his last 23 games and has found swift chemistry with fellow rookie Mats Zuccarello.
Zuccarello, a 5’7” Norwegian who boasts physical comparisons to Tampa Bay’s Martin St Louis, has skated in three consecutive games for the Rangers since his call-up from the AHL’s Connecticut Whale before Christmas. Despite having just one secondary assist to show for his efforts so far, Zuccarello’s lively play has helped to fill the gaping void left by Callahan’s injury.
Derek Stepan recorded goals in four straight games between December 16-27. The former Wisconsin Badger currently sits on a five-game point-scoring streak heading in to Saturday’s game against the Lightning, displaying a knack for clutch performances that will seldom surprise anyone that watched him captain Team USA to gold at the World Junior Championships in Saskatoon last year.
The biggest discrepancy for the Blueshirts this season has been their ability to beat those teams below them in the standings. Putting aside character wins over Pittsburgh, Washington, Chicago, Boston, and Phoenix, the most pleasing aspect for Ranger management must be the dominant records against the likes of the Islanders and Devils. The Rangers are a clean 3-0 against the Devils this season and a decisive 3-1 over the Islanders, only losing an October 11th game on Long Island after leading late in the third period. Edmonton, Calgary, Nashville, Minnesota, Toronto, Florida and Buffalo have all fallen by the wayside too, something you couldn’t so confidently expect during years past.
Lost in the Rangers strong run through December has been the inconsistent play of second-year defenseman Michael Del Zotto. Del Zotto, sidelined by the flu earlier in the month, has been a healthy scratch on more than one occasion as coach John Tortorella tries to instill a hunger in the offensive blueliner.
Fellow second-year defenseman Matt Gilroy has stepped in to the fray, netting his first goals in 65 games during a 7-2 win over the Islanders on Monday night. Gilroy, the 2009 Hobey Baker Award winner with Boston University, has displayed a similar inconsistency after a fast start to his first season, often scratched in favour of emerging blueliner Michael Sauer.
Inconsistencies are to be expected from the young Blueshirts, especially those who have made the transition from college to pro hockey without skating in the minor leagues. Gilroy hasn’t played a single game for the Rangers’ AHL affiliate, whilst Stepan too made the instant move from the University of Wisconsin to NHL hockey this past summer. The rookie centre will undoubtedly hit a wall at some point during the second half of the season, but for now his form - and, more pertinently - his consistency have been a welcome surprise.
This weekend the Blueshirts face the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers back-to-back on their annual swing through the sunshine state. To expect two wins would be foolish irrespective of current form, but both will provide tests that the Rangers must pass if they’re to continue to feel comfortable about their chances this season.