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Hartnett: Reasons For Rangers Fans To Feel Optimistic In 2014

Lundqvist Proving His Game Is Back On Track
Henrik Lundqvist (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Henrik Lundqvist (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

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Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
» More Columns

The Rangers finished 2013 by winning four of their last five games and have given fans reason to feel optimistic in the new year.

This team is trending in an upward direction thanks largely to Henrik Lundqvist rediscovering his confidence at an important juncture in the 2013-14 season.

At the halfway point (41 games), the Rangers finally have their heads above water at 20-19-2 thanks to Lundqvist burying his demons in the Sunshine State.

For most of the season, Lundqvist has been a downcast figure. The King’s mentality and focus was dented after a string of losses to Washington, Nashville and Columbus. He admitted his confidence wasn’t high after a December 12 loss to the Blue Jackets.

“Confidence is such an important thing in this game, and right now it’s not very high,” Lundqvist said at the time.

Lundqvist was allowing atypical goals to the point that his losing record, bloated goals-against average and diminished save percentage made uneasy reading for Rangers fans.

Head coach Alain Vigneault opted to start backup Cam Talbot for three consecutive games before handing the keys back to Lundqvist in Tampa.

‘THE KING’ IS BACK TO HIS BEST

A rested Lundqvist was tested by the Lightning in the third period of Sunday’s 4-3 victory. Tampa unleashed 16 shots at Lundqvist and he held strong under pressure, only surrendering one goal and earning this first win since December 15.

The Rangers could go on to do great things this season. Lundqvist’s confidence under fire in Tampa appears to be the moment that everyone looks back on and remembers as the point where the Blueshirts pushed forward and didn’t look back.

Lundqvist was again up to the task in a New Year’s Eve meeting with the Panthers. He nearly earned a shutout. Instead, Lundqvist put on a show in the shootout by confidently poke-checking away onrushing Panthers.

If not for a careless Dan Girardi turnover that led to a Brad Boyes goal, Lundqvist would have earned his first shutout since Halloween against the Sabres.

Girardi has not been himself throughout the 2013 half of the season. He’s made an unusual number of turnovers and giveaways you wouldn’t expect from a former All-Star veteran.

While his play hasn’t been largely encouraging, Girardi showed why the Rangers should keep him in a Rangers sweater for the long-term.

Say what you’d like about Girardi’s play this season, but his willingness to compete and ability to show resiliency after errors has never been questioned.

Girardi was able to tie Tuesday’s game with 2:10 remaining in regulation. More importantly, he focused himself and tightened his game after his second period miscue.

STAAL AND STRALMAN MAKE POSITIVE RETURNS

Alternate captain Marc Staal returned after a nine-game absence due to a December 7 concussion sustained against the Devils.

Staal logged an impressive 23:45 and looked every bit the rock-steady blueliner that is recognized as one of the league’s premier shutdown defenseman.

Anton Stralman returned after missing one game due to an injured left wrist. The Swedish defenseman has been a vital presence throughout the season and logged 21:29 on Tuesday.

DEFENSIVE CORE BOLSTERED

With Staal and Stralman healthy, the Rangers might have finally pinpointed their best six defensemen.

The Rangers need Girardi to keep the momentum going forward. We all know that Girardi is capable of being an intelligent and rugged blueliner.

With the emergence of mistake-free rookie Conor Allen, the Rangers are suddenly a lot sturdier on defense. Led by Staal and Ryan McDonagh, a group of six defensemen that includes Stralman, Girardi, Allen and John Moore seems like the Vigneault’s best bet going forward.

Struggling Michael Del Zotto and limited, “stay at home” defensemen Justin Falk will have to patiently wait their turn.

FIVE REASONS WHY IT SHOULD BE A HAPPY NEW YEAR FOR THE RANGERS

1. Lundqvist returning to form.

2. Ryan Callahan’s impending return to game action. Callahan appears to have recovered from a knee sprain and it’s been reported that he could be in the lineup as early as Friday in Pittsburgh.

3. The continued incredible play of Mats Zuccarello.

4. Staal shaking off the effects of a concussion and showing no sign of rust.

5. Rick Nash, Derek Stepan and Girardi showing signs they can return to form.

Happy New Year all. Be safe and healthy!

You can follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey

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