Rangers look like Stanley Cup material
John Tortorella does not want his players buying into Stanley Cup hype, at least not three months into the season since no team is the same in the spring as in January. The results so far suggest otherwise for a team with one Stanley Cup in more than 70 years.
John Tortorella called reporters’ questions about whether the New York Rangers are ready to make a Stanley Cup run “a crock.”
The Rangers coach might have downplayed the notion because he did not want his players getting overconfident, or possibly because of having won a Cup already, he knew that no team in January is the same in May or June.
But despite Tortorella diminishing his team’s Cup preparedness, the Rangers are making a strong case on the ice to media and fans that they belong in the early conversation about teams with an opportunity to win a championship in 2012.
As if sitting atop the Eastern Conference standings were not enough, New York put itself into the national conscience with a 3-2 Winter Classic win over the Flyers. Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was the second star of that game, and he has been the backbone of the Rangers' success.
Lundqvist has won 17 of 28 games for the Rangers, while helping them to have the league’s second-lowest average goals-against per game of 2.05 going into Friday's 3-1 win in Pittsburgh.
Also crucial is Martin Biron, who might not play a single postseason minute. His eight wins and 2.06 GAA in 10 games have allowed the Rangers to feel good about resting Lundqvist, which could be the difference between a long playoff run and an early exit.
A Rangers slide in the latter part of the 2010-11 season coincided with a Derek Stepan shot breaking Biron’s collarbone during a late-season practice, forcing Lundqvist to take on a bigger workload down the stretch.
The Rangers' biggest weak spot, as they enter the second half of the season, is the lack of a consistent scoring attack. Free-agent acquisition Brad Richards has increased the team’s forward depth, as their only legitimate first-line center while Marian Gaborik has 23 goals in 28 games so far, after scoring just 22 in 62 games last season.
But Gaborik’s overtime game-winner against Florida was his first point in four games, and Tortorella went as far to say tell reporters that the Slovakian sniper’s line, with Artem Anisimov and Stepan, “stunk” early in the game.
The Rangers' power play has converted 15.5 percent of its opportunities, which is 20th in the league. As general manager Glen Sather begins to test the trade market leading to the deadline in March, one would have to think that area is at the top of his shopping list.
But with the East’s best record through 38 games, the Rangers will most likely need only slight tweaks to the roster before heading into the playoffs. And if the first half of the season is any indication, even though Tortorella says it is not, hockey season on Broadway might last well into the spring.
Atlantic Division notes
The New York Islanders have crawled out of the Eastern Conference cellar, thanks to the three-game winining streak that came to an end in Anaheim on Friday. Goaltender Rick DiPietro, already on injured reserve with a groin injury since mid-December, was sent home after suffering a “lower-body injury” during the team’s road trip earlier this week. . . . The New Jersey Devils' Patrik Elias played his 1,000th career game on Friday against the Florida Panthers in Newark. He celebrated the occasion with a goal and two assists. . . . The Philadelphia Flyers got back into the win column with a 5-4 victory against the Blackhawks on Thursday. Goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov made 30 saves in his first win since Dec. 13. Bryzgalov has averaged four goals against in five games since that victory. . . . Pittsburgh Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin was chosen the NHL’s "first star" for December, having registered six goals and 14 assists in 13 games during the month.