By Neil Keefe
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The first-place New York Rangers. It has a nice ring to it. That’s probably because it’s been a long, long time since you could lead Rangers with “first place” at this point of the season.

The Rangers have looked the best they have in over a decade, and it has hockey fans in the Tri-state area excited for the spring and expecting a deep postseason run now. The problem is the Rangers still have 35 games to play and a long way to go between now and April, but for now, we can sit back and take in the Rangers’ outstanding play.

It’s been eight weeks since I did a Rangers email exchange with WFAN producer and hockey writer Brian Monzo, so with the Rangers sitting pretty at the All-Star break, it seemed like the right time for another discussion.

Keefe: Another game on Tuesday night and another win for the New York Rangers (and another shutout for Henrik Lundqvist). Winning almost seems automatic at this point for the Rangers with the first “half” of the season in the books and with them sitting atop the Eastern Conference. In recent seasons “automatic” and “winning” couldn’t have been farther apart with this organization. And not only are the Rangers winning games consistently, they’re winning in every possible way. It’s not like other seasons during the Henrik Lundqvist Era when the Rangers’ winning formula was to score the first goal and hope that Lundqvist stood on his head and posted a shutout.

So before we get into the details of this team’s outstanding 31-12-4 record at the break, let’s start with this simple question: How good do you feel about the 2011-12 Rangers right now?

Monzo: I’ve been a huge critic of the Rangers’ success as of late. They haven’t been playing at a consistently high pace. However, they’ve been finding ways to win, which is the most important thing.

I don’t take records all that seriously at this point of the season, but they are nearly 20 games over .500, and aren’t giving up a ton of goals. With the exception of a few games just over a week ago, Lundqvist has been playing at a confidence level that I’ve never seen him play in his six-plus years now as the Rangers starting goalie. I’m not sure if he feels better about the team around him or he has fixed any problem he has had in his game, but it feels like every game he will give up two goals or less with the shutout once every six starts. That leaves the King with a goals against average under 2.00, which is as impressive to an ERA under 2.00. It’s an elite stat, and Lundqvist is finally getting the respect he deserves.

All those good things said, I still don’t think the Rangers have found their A+ game. They’ve found their A- game, but when every cylinder clicks (including Marc Staal getting back to the top of his game) some more exciting things should be in store as they prepare for their playoff push and beyond.

Keefe: I know you have been a huge critic of their success because you’re a critic of everything, and because of it, those that don’t know you think you’re a Rangers “hater” on Twitter. Either that or they don’t understand the purpose of your necessary reverse jinxes that have been close to perfect this season and as much of a guarantee as anything.

I don’t know if Lundqvist looks any different to me than he has in the past. I think he’s been the best goalie in the league for a few years now, but hasn’t gotten the recognition he deserves because the rest of the team has sucked and it’s hard for outsiders who don’t watch every Rangers game to consider someone as the “best” goalie when the team isn’t near the top of the league. I think maybe there’s an illusion that Lundqvist looks better because the Rangers as a whole are better and his numbers are certainly better because the young defense has gained experience and the offense is actually offensive, and he isn’t being asked to put up a shutout and win the game himself every night. (Even though he hasn’t gotten that memo and continues to post shutouts.) It’s actually a joke that it’s taken this long for a lot of people to realize just how good Lundqvist is.

I’m surprised that you think the Rangers haven’t found their A+ game yet. If being the best team in the league isn’t selling you then what needs to happen to make you a believer? You have to like the way they have played at home this season (something they weren’t good at in previous years) and you have to like the way they have played against the other top-tier competition in the league. But if the Rangers have played their best hockey possible yet, then what’s been missing for them? What more do you want to see from the in the second half?

Monzo: Those are all good points that you raise. Regarding Lundqvist: He’s been great, and I think with his international play, and most of his play in the playoffs, the rest of the league has given him the respect he has deserved. However, I think he now has the right defense in front of him and is getting the proper rest that allows him to be at 100 percent each and every start. He’s been nominated a number of times for the Vezina, but I think this is finally the season that he wins it. He also has a chance to break Mike Richter’s record of 42 regular season wins.

As far as the rest of the team goes, yes, their record is tremendous, and there is no doubt that they are having a great season. But I still haven’t seen this team show me they can hang consistently with the Bruins, Red Wings or Blackhawks. We all saw the game against the Bruins. It was a great win, but it seemed like instead of playing with the Bruins, they were doing just enough to hang on. Maybe that’s just the way this team plays in that they do just enough to win. Come playoff time, they need to do more than that.

Brad Richards needs to do more offensively. Brandon Dubinsky needs to find his offensive game and Artem Anisimov needs to find, well, he needs to find anything. I still think they need one more addition to be a true contender for a long run in the playoffs. This isn’t me killing the team. I think they are a good team. I just think they can be that much better. If you don’t believe me, just ask their coach. I think he would agree.

Keefe: I have been hard on the Rangers’ coach, John Tortorella, the last couple years (and I believe rightfully so), while you have stood by him the way you stand by every Ranger not named Mats Zuccarello or Artem Anisimov. Tortorella took a lot of heat after taking over for Tom Renney and has produced two first-round exits and a postseason-less year during his two-plus seasons with the team before this year. Now that the team is winning, no one is calling for his job, and his personality and demeanor aren’t being questioned because that’s what winning does. (Just ask Bill Belichick.)

So what has been different with Tortorella this year? Did he have to change his approach like Tom Coughlin did prior to the 2007 season with the Giants in order to achieve success and get players to buy into his system? Is he just more comfortable with another full season with this group of players that were developed together? Or is it just that guys are finally living up their abilities and the youth has gained enough experience that it makes him look better as a coach?

Monzo: I think Tortorella finally has the team around him that he knows can win. He knows you need a few top players (Gaborik, Richards, Callahan), minute-eating defensemen (Girardi, Staal, McDonagh), gritty players (Boyle, Rupp, Prust) and players he trusts at all times on the ice (Dubinsky, Fedotenko … Boyle again).

He has succeeded as a head coach in the league before, and he is doing it again with this team. He has helped build this team and develop the talent you now see, which is something the Rangers weren’t doing or weren’t capable of doing for a long time. Also having Henrik Lundqvist and Marty Biron doesn’t hurt.

Keefe: You love to get on Artem Anisimov, and he hasn’t been the same player since his snipe celebration, but he still has a respectable 22 points in 46 games. What do you want to see differently from Anisimov and why are you so hard on him? Why are you so hard on likeable guys like Anisimov and the formerly great Mats Zuccarello, but you can find a way to like someone like Sean Avery?

Monzo: I don’t like when players have talent and we see glimpses of it and then it disappears. We’ve seen some great stuff from Anisimov, but he has these stretches where he doesn’t look interested in playing. Zuccarello just wasn’t and isn’t all that good altogether. Anisimov has talent, for sure. He’s a good player, but when his game drops, it hurts the team.

With Avery it’s different. We know what he is, and he never disappoints. He’s a grinder and a third or fourth liner, and when he was given the shot to play, he played like one.

Keefe: After impressing everyone in the league his first year, Michael Del Zotto went into a sophomore slump last year and wound up in Connecticut. This year, Del Zotto has progressed nicely and has regained the trust of most Rangers fans. He still makes the occasional idiotic defensive decision, but he has been a good reminder of the growth of youth and depth on the team. What’s different about Del Zotto this year and what’s better? And since Del Zotto has been a welcoming surprise, is there anyone you could say the same for, or anyone that’s been a disappointment?

Monzo: Del Zotto is playing with more confidence and swagger. I think every time he touches the puck, he thinks he’s going to make a play. We knew Del Zotto had the talent, and we saw it two seasons ago. He struggled last season, but really brought his A-game this season. Although the Rangers’ power play is awful, his play has on it has been promising. He still isn’t great in his own end, but playing to a plus-20 rating is very solid. Del Zotto was challenged by coach Tortorella and has really responded.

Carl Hagelin has also been a nice surprise for the team. Hagelin was called up just over 20 games ago, and has been tremendous. His speed goes without saying, and his nose for the puck brings something to the team they haven’t had in years. It seems like every shift he’s creating opportunities.

Brandon Dubinsky who has been the most disappointing. His play hasn’t been all that bad, but his offensive production (just five goals) has hurt the team. He hits, bangs bodies and is a solid penalty killer, but he needs to bury the puck more, and I think he will in the second half.

Keefe: Andrew Ference got suspended for destroying Ryan McDonagh from behind last weekend and the suspension was appropriate, but it would have been longer if McDonagh had gotten hurt, which isn’t a way to suspend someone. The hit was dangerous whether McDonagh came away from it unscathed or not, and it seems like despite all these suspensions, a lot of guys in the league still aren’t getting the picture. It’s kind of like the high-sticking penalty where if a guy gets cut, there’s a four-minute penalty. You could shatter someone’s jaw or break their orbital socket or blind them and it’s two minutes. But if there’s a scratch and some blood, it’s four minutes. But back to the suspension … it seems like everyone was pro-Brendan Shanahan at the beginning of the year as he handed out suspensions left and right and becoming an Internet-video sensation. Now people have backed off, as he has been the extreme opposite of Colin Campbell. Do you like the way Shanahan has done his job?

Monzo: I love what Shanny has done. His videos are epic, and I think it’s made a difference in the game. I have to disagree with your comments about high-sticking. If you cut someone, the penalty should be more severe. If you break someone’s jaw, I’m sure the correct punishment would be issued. Shanahan is in a tough spot, but as someone that played the game, and been now on both ends of clean and dirty hits, I trust his perspective.

Keefe: The Rangers are in first place in the Eastern Conference, but we all know that doesn’t mean that much since just six points separate first place and sixth place, and there appears to be a lot of teams headed for the bubble down the stretch. And having the No. 1 seed in the NHL playoffs doesn’t mean that much since in this day and age of cookie-cutter rinks and little no home-ice advantage, it doesn’t really matter what seed you as long as you get into the playoffs. (Even though the Rangers have played exceptionally at the Garden this year.)

The Rangers have 35 games left or 43 percent of the season. A lot can change in nearly half a season and a lot will change between now and Game 82. But right now, let’s look wayyyyyy ahead. Which teams pose serious first-round threats to the Rangers in April?

Monzo: I think every team presents a challenge to the Rangers. That’s the beauty of the league, especially because like you said, six points separate the top six teams.

I think the really tough teams are the Penguins, Senators, Maple Leafs and Canadiens. Those teams will present issues with anyone. The Penguins, even without Sidney Crosby, have a solid offensive team and a goalie that has won big games (even though I think Marc-Andre Fleury’s overrated). The Senators have been playing great hockey, and have been getting massive production from superstar defenseman Erik Karlsson. The Leafs (built by Brian Burke, my favorite sports executive) are a fast and tough team. The Habs aren’t currently in the playoff picture, but that could change in the second half and they always seem to play the Rangers hard.

The biggest thing for the Rangers is not going to be who they play, but their conditioning down the stretch. It’s no secret that Tortorella works his teams hard. Looking back at their series against the Capitals last season, they looked physically beat throughout the series. That can’t happen again.

Follow Neil on Twitter @NeilKeefe

Follow Brian on Twitter @BMonzoWFAN