Back on January 31st I made the proclamation that the Rangers season was over and they should now become sellers at the trade deadline. The team had just lost 2-1 to the Toronto Maple Leafs and had fallen to 10th place in the East. It wasn’t so much that they were out of the race (they were only 2 points behind 8th), but that they had failed to capitalize on an opportunity against a team that was also battling for the playoffs.
The Rangers would continue to falter and fumble way through the next month, going 4-5-2 over the next eleven games and entering the trade deadline in 12th place and a full seven points out of a playoff position. Along the way they’d lost their leading goal-scorer Brendan Shanahan to a serious concussion that had some wondering whether he’d return at all, their second top scorer Martin Straka to a shoulder injury that would require off-season surgery, and backup netminder Kevin Weekes. Things looked grim for the Rangers, and many (including yours truly) figured the season to be at an end.
The trade deadline came and went, with the Rangers making a couple of moves. The recently acquired Pascal Dupuis, was packaged with a third round pick to Atlanta for prospect Alex Bourret, and disgruntled defenseman Aaron Ward was sent off to Boston in exchange for the struggling Paul Mara. Jason Krog (who had been a healthy scratch for several games) was also claimed off waivers by his former club, the Thrashers. The general consensus at the end of the day was that the Rangers had “won” the day by not doing anything stupid, but there were those such as myself who wondered if they couldn’t have done more to make the most of what was obviously a seller’s market.
Perhaps that was also in the back of the minds of some of the players too, as the Rangers pulled out an impressive 4-0 victory over the Montreal Canadiens who were also in the race for the last playoff spots. Things were looking decidedly positive in the follow-up game, when the Rangers took a 2-0 lead into the third period with the Penguins, but two short-handed goals, and a third goal after the Rangers had regained the lead, ultimately lead to a Penguins shootout victory. Once again the roller coaster appeared to be heading for a dip.
The ride continued to get rough into the next game where Stephen Valiquette made a meal of his first NHL start since the 2003-04 season, allowing a goal on the first shot he faced from a bad angle. The Rangers fell behind 2-0 and it remained that way deep into the third until a Karel Rachunek goal on the power play finally gave the Rangers some life. Sean Avery evened it up with under six minutes on a shot from high in the slot and the Rangers remarkably looked alive again. There were more heroics in the ensuing shootout, when Jaromir Jagr kept the Rangers hopes alive with a clutch goal, followed up by a save by Valiquette on Brad Boyes. Marcel Hossa set up the win on the ensuing shot, with his third such goal of the year and Valiquette sealed the victory by stopping Glen Metropolit, stretching the Rangers streak to three games with at least a point.
In hindsight, that game may very well have been the tipping point for the Rangers. Since that win, the team has gone 5-1-2, and earning at least a point in ten of their eleven straight games. Henrik Lundqvist has been a rock in goal in 2007, but has stepped it up even further since the deadline, posting a record of 6-1-3 and allowing just 15 goals in that period. He’s also played five overtime periods in that time, and three shootouts, stopping 8 of the 9 shots he’s faced.
But the reason I’ve changed my mind, is because finally I see a team that is finding ways to win, or at the very least gain a point when things don’t go the team’s way. Sure enough the loss of several two goal leads in recent weeks has been troubling, but the ability to finally win on home ice, to win one-goal games and to beat teams they need to beat, despite injuries and scheduling challenges, has convinced me that this team can now make the playoffs.
Last night’s 2-1 win over the Penguins was the perfect example of what I’m talking about. Despite being without Straka, Shanahan, Hossa, Tyutin, Rachunek, Weekes and even Ozolinsh, the Rangers found a way to eke out the first goal from a fourth liner against the Penguins’ top line. Even when a lucky deflection sent the puck straight to a Penguin to allow the game to be tied with five minutes to go, the Rangers found a way to win. There’s no doubt that Jagr’s goal with 33.8 seconds to go relied on a fortuitous bounce of the puck, but it was the type of “luck” that good teams get, and bad teams struggle to overcome.
With that goal, the two points and several Lundqvist saves, I now officially pronounce the Rangers a playoff-bound team. Now let’s see if they can get it “right” this time.