By Steve Silverman
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It’s amazing what one unexpected win can do for a franchise.
Suddenly, the New York Rangers have hope for the 2013-14 season. When the Rangers went into Chicago’s United Center Wednesday night, it seemed quite likely that the defending Stanley Cup-champion Blackhawks would score three goals in the first period and blow out the Rangers before the start of the final period.
But even though the Blackhawks had lost just two home games in regulation all season, the Rangers were the ones who came out flying in the first period and set the tone by taking a 2-0 lead. While the Blackhawks managed to tie it up in the second period, the Rangers won the game in the third period when Carl Hagelin scored the decisive goal, and the Rangers managed to hold on against a Chicago onslaught in the final moments.
It was a big moment for a team that started the season by digging a hole for itself on the road this year. It was clearly New York’s best victory of the season and may indicate a turnaround for head coach Alain Vigneault and goalie Henrik Lundqvist.
This has not been the best season for a goalie who has clearly been acknowledged as the best in the league for several years. Even with that victory, Lundqvist has a pedestrian 2.76 goals-against average and a .907 win percentage. He is not the sole reason the Rangers have been mediocre this year, but he has been a big part of it.
The Rangers have been able to feel good about their victory over the Blackhawks for 24 hours, but there’s no time for glory in the NHL. That win will mean little if they don’t build off of it.
That opportunity comes this week with four home games against the Dallas Stars, Philadelphia Flyers, Tampa Bay Lightning and Detroit Red Wings.
In case you hadn’t noticed, the Flyers have overcome the disastrous start that had them in the Eastern Conference basement at the start of the year. They would be a playoff team if the season ended today.
The Tampa Bay Lightning have been one of the most shocking teams in the league. Not only have they been near the top of the Atlantic Division all year, they have done it without explosive Steven Stamkos, who has been out with a broken leg since Nov. 11. He will be back, and when he returns, the Lightning may be a juggernaut.
The Rangers have a chance to become the team they should have been all season long. They have gotten offensive leadership from Brad Richards, who was buried by John Tortorella during the end of his regime.
He is joined by Mats Zuccarello, the diminutive Norwegian who shares the team’s scoring lead with Richards at 31 points. Zuccarello is a hustler who sets an example with his speed and quickness. His wrap-around goal against Chicago was an example of what can happen when a player ignores the reputation of the team he is playing and just goes at them as hard as he can.
If Derek Stepan, Ryan McDonagh, Derick Brassard and Hagelin can pick it up a little, the Rangers may be able to climb in the standings.
However, the key is the play of Rick Nash, who has not given the Rangers the kind of explosiveness and dependability they thought they would get when they acquired him from Columbus before the start of last season.
Based on his track record, Nash should be expected to score 35 goals and have 75-80 points in a season. Nash has registered all of nine goals and nine assists this year.
There is no drop-off in his ability. If there was, Canadian Olympic general manager Steve Yzerman never would have selected him for the Olympic team.
If the Rangers are going to make a run the rest of the season, they need Nash to play like an MVP candidate the rest of the way, and Lundqvist must play up to his previous level as well.
There’s no better time than right now for the Rangers to show they can play with the league’s elite.
One win against Chicago is nice, but it’s not enough. They must take advantage of this four-game homestand if they are going to rescue their season.
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