And just like that, the New York Rangers will end the first half of the season as the NHL's second-best team. Their 3-0 shutout Tuesday night of the Winnipeg Jets put a cap on an outstanding 47 games -- and was a microcosm of why they've been so successful thus far.
Superb goaltending? They got that from Henrik Lundqvist, who notched his 40th career shutout (tying him for second most as a member of the Rangers) and fifth of the season. The King was supposed to receive a day off today, but received the start after Martin Biron went down with the flu. All he did was make 22 saves, 10 in the third period -- and a number of them jaw-dropping (though at this point, nothing he does amazes because he does it with regularity). None were better than the third-period one he made after the Jets sent a pass toward the crease that deflected off of Anton Stralman's skate and Lundqvist quickly reacted and fell on it before the puck crept through his five-hole.
Sound defense? Beyond some on-and-off spurts from the offensively-challenged Jets and a few big chances in the third period, the Rangers defense allowed next to nothing. They were strong on forecheck so that wore down the Jets on the ice. They limited space well, took the body and made the simple plays. Finally, they blocked 17 shots. It was one of those performances that has made them so difficult to play against all season -- New York is just so relentless. The 31-12-4 record's foundation is based up the all-around defensive efforts. If you're not going to give an effort to play defense on coach John Tortorella's team, you will not play. It's as simple as that.
Opportunistic goal-scoring? OK, so maybe these goals weren't necessarily the Rangers scoring goals at the best possible times (or when they were behind the eight ball), but it certainly wasn't without hard work. The Blueshirts' offensive-zone pressure led to Ryan Callahan's 17th of the year off of a rebound of an Anton Stralman slapshot in the first period. John MItchell netted his third in five games (fifth overall) at 13:22 of the second period off of the board play the Rangers have been so good at this year. Derek Stepan chipped the puck ahead in the defensive zone to John Mitchell, who sent a pass cross-ice to Michael Del Zotto in the neutral zone. Del Zotto then sent another pass to Mitchell who fired a wrist shot past Ondrej Pavelec. And finally, Brad Richards got on the board for the first time in nine games with less than four minutes remaining in the game; a play that was set up in the corner by Callahan.
The season is still a long way from completion, but 66 points is something to be proud of at this point. There's also something to be said for setting yourself up with a strong base for the playoff push -- which begins after the All-Star break with a game next Tuesday at the New Jersey Devils.