By Steve Silverman
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When the story of the 2013-14 season is written, the date of Jan. 8, 2014, will be one of the most important on the New York Rangers’ schedule.
That’s when the Rangers were at a crossroads. They were in the middle of an unimpressive season under first-year head coach Alain Vigneault. It was going to be touch-and-go to see if they could earn the seventh or eighth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
There was no reason to think that the Rangers could put together anything special.
But the Rangers turned their season around against a most unlikely opponent. They walked into United Center in Chicago and beat the defending Stanley Cup-champion Blackhawks on their home ice.
It’s important to note how the Rangers won that game. They walked into Chicago and jumped out to a 2-0 lead on the Blackhawks in the first period. The Blackhawks tied it with a pair of goals in the second period, and it appeared the Rangers would capitulate. Instead, they played the Blackhawks on even terms for the majority of the third period before Carl Hagelin scored the winner with less than six minutes to go.
That’s how good teams win road games. They do it at the end of the third period when both teams have spent the majority of their energy. They didn’t need an extra five minutes of 4-on-4 hockey in overtime and they certainly didn’t need a sideshow shootout.
The Rangers had just a bit more in the tank on that day than a very talented and decorated opponent, and Vigneault realized his team had done something special, even if he didn’t gush about it.
Vigneault was asked after the game if it was a turning point for his team.
“I don’t know about that,” Vigneault said with a twinkle in his eye. “All I know is beating the Stanley Cup champions in this building is not an easy task.”
The Rangers have used that game as a springboard to turn their season around. Since that game, they have won nine out of 12 games, including their last four in a row.
The Rangers are a long way from clinching a spot in the playoffs, but it seems clear that they are the second-best team in the Atlantic Division behind the Penguins, and they will find a way to hold down that position by the time the regular season ends in April. They would likely face Montreal or Toronto in the first round of the playoffs, and either one of those series would be delicious.
Perhaps we are getting out ahead of our skis, but it seems clear that the Rangers have overcome the inconsistency they had at the beginning of the season when they were floundering near the bottom of the Eastern Conference. Vigneault seemed to be an indecisive leader who did not understand the kind of players he had.
He seemed to be at odds with all-world goalie Henrik Lundqvist and it seemed the team might have been better off if they had retained their relentless former taskmaster. John Tortorella was missed, at least for a few seconds.
But Vigneault’s plan is starting to bear fruit. The Rangers are scoring early goals and they are scoring clutch goals. They have eight players who have scored 10-or-more goals, and that’s a good sign that the Rangers don’t have to depend solely on Rick Nash, Brad Richards or surprising Mats Zuccarello to put the puck in the net.
However, what the Rangers must do is hang on to Ryan Callahan. Even though the star forward and the team appear to have come to something of an impasse in contract negotiations, Callahan is the kind of player who can put a team over the top.
If the Rangers and Callahan are at their best, they can win a series or two, and possibly fight their way into the Eastern Conference Finals. But if Glen Sather decides the Rangers simply aren’t good enough to compete with Pittsburgh or Boston, and he trades Callahan for assets, he would be making a mistake. Those teams are good, but they can be beaten.
The Rangers need to be buyers when the Olympic break ends and the players come back from Sochi. The team is growing and getting better, and the longer it keeps Callahan, the more time it has to negotiate a fair deal with him.
Trading him might be a logical business move, but it would take the heart right out of this team at the worst possible time.
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