Rangers Look To Keep Rolling

Madison Square Garden. The World’s Most Famous Arena. Since 1926, the New York Rangers have called some form of Madison Square Garden their home. The current garden, which sits between West 31 Street and West 33 Street in Manhattan, New York has had a number of defining moments over the years. From the Rangers run to the Stanley Cup Final in 1979, to the run to the finals in 1994 where the Rangers conquered the Vancouver Canucks in seven games to earn the franchise their fourth Stanley Cup and first in 54 years, to more current memories such as Dominic Moore scoring the lone goal in game six of the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals, which ultimately sent the Rangers to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final.

Stars such as Jean Ratelle, Rod Gilbert, Brad Park, Andy Bathgate, Ron Greschner, Mark Messier, Mike Richter, Adam Graves, Brian Leetch, Henrik Lundqvist and Rick Nash have all called the Garden home. All have worn the diagonal letters across their chest with pride. There aren’t many organizations that can say they have such a storied and rich tradition as the Rangers do and that’s part of the reason why so many people worldwide love them as much as they do.

Writing a column about the team that I love is the job I’ve wanted since I got into journalism. Here’s the first step in my journey, thanks for reading and welcome to the inaugural column of the Blueshirts Blueline. Here’s some key storylines to take note of from the first half of the 2014-15 New York Rangers season and a look at the second half and playoff push.

The Resurgence of Rick Nash

Rick Nash is a man on a mission. He is scoring at a historical rate and is now challenging for his second ever Maurice “Rocket” Richard trophy. The last time Nash held that trophy he was 19 years old and just finished the second season of his career. Nash, now 30, has never looked better and seems hell-bent on getting the New York Rangers over that last hump and finally getting the Stanley Cup back to New York City.

After a playoff run that saw Nash score only three goals in 25 games, many people placed a huge part of the blame on Nash when the Rangers lost in the Stanley Cup Final to the Kings. It’s not that he wasn’t trying or wasn’t shooting. Nash had the most shots of any forward in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs but the “puck luck” wasn’t there. Prior to this season, Nash, due to various injuries and ailments, wasn’t playing like the Nash everyone hoped the Rangers had acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets. What a difference a summer of intense training, being healthy and playing with confidence makes.

No matter who his linemates have been this season, Nash has stepped up. Whether he plays with Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello or Derek Stepan and Martin St. Louis, he finds ways to score. He uses his immense frame (6’4,” 220 lbs.) to push his way through defenders, get to the net and score goals any way he can. During the 2014-15 season, Nash has been playing like the player everyone thought the Rangers were getting from the Blue Jackets, and the team is reaping the rewards.

Nash currently has 32 goals on the season and is on pace for the first 50 goal season of his career. If Nash keeps his scoring pace up and doesn’t slow up when the playoffs roll around, Rangers fans won’t have him to blame if something else goes wrong.

13 of 14

After an average first 24 games of the season where the Rangers went 11-9-4, they hoped to have a big game against the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday, Dec. 6, to begin some type of streak in the right direction. The game started off great with the Rangers up 2-0. The game then spiraled out of control and the Red Wings earned a 3-2 victory at Joe Louis Arena. It was one of the worst losses of the season, and the Rangers dropped to 11-10-4.  The following game against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Madison Square Garden changed everything; it was the beginning of something historic.

The Rangers were leading for most of the game but once again gave away a lead and the game against the Penguins ended tied. The game entered overtime. The Rangers needed a hero. They needed someone to step up for them and get that goal. The hero was none other then Kevin Klein, one of the Rangers most consistent players all season. The Rangers won the game 4-3.

Then the Rangers kept winning. And winning. And winning. And, well you get my point. They eventually built up their win streak to eight straight wins. It was the first time a Rangers team had won eight-straight games since the 1974-75 season. During the streak they defeated the Penguins, Canucks, Oilers, Flames, Hurricanes (twice), Capitals and Devils. The team was clicking, Henrik Lundqvist and Cam Talbot were making the saves when called upon and confidence was at an all-time high.

After beating the Devils for their eighth straight win, the Rangers traveled to Dallas, Texas to take on the Dallas Stars. The Stars would end up beating the Rangers 3-2 in regulation but the very next game, the Rangers began a five-game winning streak. During this streak they defeated the Panthers, Sabres, Ducks, Kings and Sharks. They had won 13 of their last 14 games and had earned some much needed wins after their average start to the year. Their record at the time sat at 24-11-4. They were beginning to look like the team fans envisioned them to be all season.

Despite Success, Faceoffs Remain an Issue

At the time of publishing, the Rangers remain 29th in the league in faceoff wins only beating the Buffalo Sabres. That’s not good and could come to hurt them come playoff time. Derek Stepan and Derick Brassard, the Rangers top two centers have been mediocre on the draw. Kevin Hayes, the Rangers third-line center, is statistically the worst faceoff man in the league. Dominic Moore, the Rangers fourth-line center, is actually the best faceoff man on the team.

Whoever wins the faceoff controls the play and the Rangers definitely need someone who can step in and take an important draw. Enter the trade deadline: The Rangers need to acquire a center with some size and good faceoff skills. Hayes would get moved back to the wing and the Rangers would earn some depth with their centers. Two players that come to mind are Martin Hanzal and Antoine Vermette of the Arizona Coyotes. Both rank in the top ten in faceoff win percentage. Both are available but it remains to be seen what price Coyotes General Manager Don Maloney requests for them.

The Second-Half of the Season and the Push for the Playoffs

The Rangers record currently stands at 30-15-4. In order to make the playoffs and possibly even win the division, the Rangers can’t take their foot off the pedal. The Islanders’ years of being irrelevant are finally paying off for them. Their draft picks are working out and the key veteran’s they’ve added have only helped. The Islanders are currently on a three game losing streak and the Rangers need to take advantage. The Penguins are always a regular season threat. The Capitals keep on winning as well. It just doesn’t get easier as the weeks go by in the NHL.

Over the last 32 games of the season the Rangers will play 18 games on the road and 14 at the Garden; winning road games is an absolute must, and the Rangers must take advantage of all the games they have left at home. Winning games and getting points is all that matters at this point in the season with every team fighting tooth and nail to grab a playoff spot. You never know what can happen once you get in. Just ask the Los Angeles Kings. They were the eighth and final seed in the Western Conference in 2012 and managed to win the Stanley Cup.

Will the Rangers win the division?

 As of right now my prediction is yes. They are only currently two points out of first place and have games in hand on every team in their division. If they keep playing at a high level, I don’t see any reason why they can’t win the Metropolitan Division title. The race to the playoffs is sure going to be fun to watch.