by Paul West
It’s a strange time to be a New York Rangers fan.
For several years, the Rangers trended gradually upward, showing signs of true contention before having their weaknesses exposed in the postseason. One such weakness was the approach of coach John Tortorella, who alienated and metaphorically handcuffed his skill players by demanding a defense-first, shot-blocking approach that required keeping the score low. The Rangers made a move in this department, hiring the more laid-back Alain Vigneault as their coach in 2013. The offense flourished almost immediately, as the skill players relaxed and began to synchronize. The defense lagged briefly, but the team soon achieved remarkable three-zone balance and began to reveal themselves as one of the NHL’s elite teams. They made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals, battling through tough series the entire way, before losing in five games to the emergent Los Angeles Kings.
The following season, ‘change the ending’ was the theme as the Rangers proved that the previous year was no fluke. They won the President’s Cup for the first time since 1994, setting a franchise record with 113 points. They gave away promising young forward Anthony Duclair, in a win-now trade for scoring defenseman Keith Yandle that many (myself included) questioned. Unfortunately, partly due to injuries to key players, they lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Conference Finals.
Coming into this season, the Rangers had done most of what there was to be done by an NHL team–except that one, final, elusive thing. They got off to a hot start, then went a bit cold. And just after the All-Star Break, they find themselves embedded in a playoff race that many would have thought they’d be well atop by this point in the season. Their power play continues to frustrate, crippled by overpassing and lack of assertiveness in the opposing crease. Their penalty kill has declined, as well, which is troubling as it had remained dependable even at times when the power play was most futile. And the injury bug has returned: in the first game after the break, two-way defenseman Kevin Klein suffered a broken thumb that will keep him out indefinitely. Klein leads the team in plus-minus rating, and his loss will put further strain on an already beleaguered defensive corps. Rick Nash, the resurgent star who last year played arguably the best hockey of his career, has been battling a leg injury. The absence of Martin St. Louis, a possible future Hall of Famer with championship experience who helped animate the team’s tenacity, is no small matter. And the team has, indeed, seemed to lack its signature tenacity of late; in a recent interview, Derek Stepan opined that the Rangers’ “compete level” was lagging. “That’s been one of the strengths we’ve had as a team the last few years,” he said. “We have to have that.”
Is the pressure to clear that final hurdle getting to the Rangers?
“Championship or bust” has never been a particularly wise way to look at a team or a season. But it can’t be denied that certain teams, and certain seasons, lend themselves to just that outlook. In recent years, the Rangers have risen through mediocrity and doubt. They’ve survived one hockey tribulation after another, and they are cemented in the minds of most observers as one of the most dangerous teams in the NHL. They’ve won a President’s Cup and the Eastern Conference, and they’ve at various points–sometimes all at once–been one of the NHL’s top-ranked teams on offense, defense, and both areas of special teams. With that increased stature comes the pressure of expectation.
Even last season, when “change the ending” was the team’s buzzword, the Rangers could still think of themselves as something of an underdog. Despite their many strengths, their 2014 run to the Stanley Cup Finals was a surprise to many. In 2015, they took it upon themselves to prove their legitimacy to the hockey world. They had the best record in the league, and by most measures, an excellent season. Yet their season actually ended earlier than it had the year before.
The Rangers have gone from a talented but underestimated Cinderella story to a team that not only doesn’t sneak up on anyone, but at whom every opponent takes their best shot. Opposing teams seem to have scouted them more thoroughly, and are countering their precision transition attack more effectively. Leading up to the current season, analysts had the Rangers on their short lists of Stanley Cup contenders. Also looming is the fact that, while the Rangers have a wealth of young talent, some of their core stars have been around for a while. Henrik Lundqvist is one of the greatest goalies of his generation, and probably of all time; but he, is also human, and it’s tough to say how many more years of night-in, night-out heroics he has in him. Other teams have young rising starts of their own, such as the Edmonton Oilers‘ Connor McDavid, and Alex Ovchkin and the Washington Capitals seem to be on a mission this season.
There isn’t yet cause for panic, but the Rangers have established a new standard for themselves. On one hand, this can liberate them from worries surrounding a regular-season hiccup; they’ve already had perhaps the best regular season in the team’s history, and it’s already been proven that a top seed isn’t necessary to win the Stanley Cup. But the Rangers have one foot through a window to the NHL’s pinnacle, and it’s hard to say how long that window will remain open. Being a favorite brings a unique sort of pressure; if the Rangers will achieve their ultimate goal, it will take the same grace and tenacity that got them to this point.