Whether the pundits or even the New York Rangers themselves want to admit it: This is a team on the rise. Game-by-game and week-by-week, the Blueshirts are proving that they should be considered among one of the top-tier teams in the Eastern Conference.
After two losses -- one in the shootout -- earlier this week, the Rangers rebounded for two no-doubt victories to give them a 17-6-4 record and 38 points on the season. In their last two games, against the Sabres and Panthers, the Rangers outscored their opponents 10-2. Even in a "down" week, they still earned five of eight points. New York is currently tied for fourth in the East, two points behind the conference-leading Flyers, with one fewer game played.
Had New York been in any other division than the Atlantic, it would be in first place. It just so happens that the conference's best teams -- the Flyers and Penguins -- also are the divisional foes. Since the first three games of the season, the Blueshirts have not lost three games in a row, dealing with three two-game slides since. If there's one thing that this team has shown, it's that they do not let themselves get too "low" after losses or even too "high" after wins. It's a young, hungry group striving to make an impact every night. Credit John Tortorella and his coaching staff, as well, for assembling a group with a no-quit attitude and tinkering -- then sticking -- with the lines that are getting the job done.
New York is proving that it has contributors up and down the lineup. That balance -- beyond the top players -- is what is really starting to show itself lately. Derek Stepan is emerging as one of the NHL's young unsung stars, with 20 points in 27 games and eight in six games in December. Artem Anisimov has 19 points on the season, with seven points this month. Even a newly-recalled player like Carl Hagelin is making an impact (not only with his world-class skating ability) as he has six points in his first nine games. If anything, the Rangers are dangerous because they're underestimated at this point. They're proving so for this season, though, that they shouldn't be.
This week, the Rangers will face three teams in the Western Conference, all of whom have very solid records.
Dallas Stars, Tuesday, Dec. 13, 7 p.m. EST, MSG
The Stars' 16-11-1 record may seem a little fake at this point: They began the year as one of the NHL's best teams, but are in a spurt where they've lost nine of their last 14 games. Over the past few games, they've been without top netminder Kari Lehtonen, and have journeyman Andrew Raycroft and a rookie in Richard Bachman filling in. Their top scorers, Jamie Benn and Loui Eriksson, have cooled off considerably, but remain one of the best up-and-coming pairs in the NHL. Benn, 24 points, scored for the first time in seven games Dec. 10, while Loui Eriksson, 22 points, hasn't scored in seven games, and he has one in his last 12. New York would be grateful if their struggles continued. Dallas ranks in the middle of the pack in goals scored and goals allowed; they're also .500 on the road (7-7-0).
at St. Louis Blues, Thursday, Dec. 15, 8 p.m. EST, MSG
Hiring Ken Hitchock over a month a go was the best thing for this Blues squad as they've been nearly unbeatable since, as their 10-2-3 record would show. St. Louis was 6-7 under former head coach Davis Payne. They are actually very similar to the Rangers: a young team, with solid defense, superb goaltending -- they let up the fewest goals in the NHL -- and enough goal scoring. The Blues' strength right now is that they have two No. 1- quality goaltenders in Brian Elliot (who's been close to flawless) -- 12-2-0, 1.46 goals-against average, .947 save percentage -- and Jaroslav Halak -- 5-7-3, .2.37 goals against average, .947 save percentage. St. Louis does not posses a very dangerous attack, and has four players with 15 or more points. Alexander Steen and T.J. Oshie lead the way with 19 points; David Backes leads with 10 goals. Their one knock might be that they don't really have a go-to sniper (they are 24th in the league in goals scored), so they must rely on their blueline play and goaltending to stay in games. New York will have it's worth cut out for them against such a fundamentally sound bunch, and one that is 11-3-1 at home.
at Phoenix Coyotes, Saturday, Dec. 17, 8 p.m. EST, MSG+
At 15-11-3, Phoenix may be the NHL's surprise bunch, however as of this posting, they are mired in a stretch in which they've won two games of their last six. The Yotes are another pretty low-scoring bunch, but the difference is that their goaltending -- Mike Smith, 13-8-3, 2.49 goals-against average, .923 save percentage -- hasn't been as unstoppable. Their offense has five players with at least 15 points, and is lead by veteran Ray Whitney who has 25 points and Radim Vrbata who also has 25. The Blueshirts should get their offensive chances as Phoenix ranks as top-three in shots allowed per game. They also haven't been the best team on home ice, with a 6-6-2 record.