By Steve Silverman
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The New York Rangers may have been slow to join the party, but they appear to have found their way as the NHL season has hit the second half.
The Chicago Blackhawks certainly dominated the first half of the season by shooting out of the gate with a 21-0-3 record.
While the Blackhawks were setting records in the West, the Rangers were falling in the East. Instead of picking up where they left off last year, they were a .500 team for much of the first half, losing games to the Devils, Islanders, Flyers and Canadiens.
John Tortorella was seething behind the bench and wondering what was going wrong with a team was the presumed Stanley Cup favorite.
Goals were hard to come by and Henrik Lundqvist was not at his best in the net. The short season was slipping away.
But on the last day of February, the Rangers beat the Tampa Bay Lightning, 4-1. That game seemed to get the Rangers going in the right direction. They have won five of their last six games and have developed an identity.
That identity has been defined the play of Rick Nash.
The former Blue Jackets All-Star has been skating hard and impressively since the first game of the season, but it took him a while to find his rhythm with his new teammates. But the feeling-out process is over and Nash has hit his stride.
Nash leads the Rangers with nine goals and 14 assists for 23 points in 20 games. He is also an impressive +13 for the season.
Nash is not unstoppable, but when he gets the puck in stride you know he is going to get a scoring opportunity. It might be for himself or he may pass the puck to a teammate, but he is skilled big man who uses his size and speed to make plays on nearly every possession.
When Glen Sather acquired Nash from Columbus during the offseason, the thought was that he would become the perfect complement for Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards. The Rangers would have enough scoring to get through the Eastern Conference Finals and play for the Stanley Cup.
Nash is not a supporting player. He has become the showstopper and the star. There were some thoughts that the pressure of performing on Broadway would be too much for a player who had earned his stripes in Columbus, but it seems like the bright lights of Madison Square Garden are bringing out the best in Nash.
Not only does he lead the team in scoring, but he does his scoring in the third period when the game is on the line.
He has relieved pressure on Gaborik, Richards and Ryan Callahan. They know that they don’t have to do it every night and they can play their game. Nash is there to carry the load, and the 6-foo-4, 220-pounder is more than up to it.
Nash gave the Rangers a lifeline just when they needed it most, and it seems like they have established their foothold.
They are barely qualifying for a playoff spot at this point, but it seems quite likely that they are about to climb over teams like the Devils, Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs in the near future.
The Devils have been slumping badly, the Senators have been torn apart by injuries and the Maple Leafs are prone to choking in the latter half of the season.
The Blackhawks were the story of the first half of the season. Don’t write off the Rangers, because they could be the story of the second half.
Rangers fans, are you fully confident that the Blueshirts will make the playoffs? What seed will they be heading into the postseason? Sound off with your thoughts and comments below…