Rather than backtrack of what was 48 productive hours for the Blueshirts in which they earned three of four points (5-2 over Stars and 2-1 shootout loss in Hotlanta), I'm just going to give some quick thoughts on a nice improvement that's suddenly got them back into a sixth place tie with the Sens. A point better than eighth Montreal, who blanked Florida and three ahead of the Flyers, who continued the Pens' troubles by lighting them up for seven in a 7-4 road win. With their first win in 10, the Thrashers are tied with the Islanders for 10th with 44 points, three out.
-Gotta start with Chad Johnson, who was utterly brilliant in his first NHL start making 31 saves against a rested Thrasher club before succumbing in the shootout. Many Ranger tweeps wanted to see what the kid from Calgary could do after a strong showing in camp and a great recovery in Hartford that got him here so quickly. I don't think anyone expected him to be so impressive, stoning Atlanta until Jim Slater slipped behind waste Brian Boyle for a breakaway goal that forced extras. Johnson was very cool making big stops including a couple of highway robberies from in tight, allowing the Rangers to get a point. He didn't hurt himself and John Tortorella hinted the Alaska-Fairbanks product acquired from the Pens for a fifth rounder should get another start this month. It's important to give King Henrik a breather every now and then. Especially with the Olympics around the corner.
-If Ocho Cinco headlines the list, then Sean Avery's monster game a day before in which he tormented his former Star 'mates during a 5-2 MSG win has to be runner-up. It's no great shock that Avery was Avery finally, playing arguably the finest game of his career by scoring a goal and assisting on three others, including a nifty spin-a-rama in which he undressed a poor Dallas D before making a sweet dish for Chris Drury for a huge insurance marker in the club's second consecutive home win. In between, Avery was his agitating best irking Marty Turco to the point where he referred to him as a "twerp" following a game in which he allowed two shortside goals, including a tying PPG to No.16. Maybe Turco should just can it. That was a pathetic statement by Dallas.
-Henrik Lundqvist is third because he's really turned around his season, providing a low scoring Ranger club with the kind of goaltending necessary to make the postseason a fifth straight time in a weak conference. Before Johnson was between the pipes, excluding the appalling 6-0 home rout to Philly in which he was pulled after 20, Lundqvist made 17 straight starts. During the busy stretch, he permitted two goals-or-less in 13, including 10 of the last dozen. Entering last night, the Blueshirts had won seven of 10 (7-1-2) with Lundqvist posting a 1.90 GAA along with a .932 save percentage. The return to form has the 27 year-old Swede gold medalist down to a 2.40 GAA and up to a .920 save pct. His career best is .922 established back in his rookie year. He's facing almost 30 shots-per-start with plenty quality due to a suspect blueline that features freshmen Mike Del Zotto and Matt Gilroy. Not to mention overpaid Wade Redden and Michal Rozsival. For all our harsh criticism of Henrik's faults this year, he must be given a ton of credit for keeping a flawed team in the hunt. Since Tort's blow up following a dreadful shutout 3-0 loss to the Islanders on home ice, he's put them on his back.
-Brandon Dubinsky has quietly played better posting nine points over the past 10. Though he's been held off the score sheet three straight, the third-year Alaskan is playing solid in all facets while anchoring the top line. When he competes, Dubi is an asset. The Rangers must continue to see improvement from the 23 year-old center.
-It would be easy to overlook Chris Drury but he's shown a pulse since Tort's blow out that had the captain centering the fourth line. The 33 year-old vet has turned around his season, posting four goals and three assists with a plus-two rating over the last 11 contests, including a 5-2 win over the Islanders that started the four-game win streak. Anyone can critique Dru for a dismal season that's only seen him light the lamp six times with 10 helpers but the reason Team USA selected him for a third Olympics is the kind of character the man has. Something we've finally seen with Drury doing a fantastic job on one of the best PK units, teaming with Ryan Callahan. You'll see that next month in Vancouver too. Dru looks more confident playing with Cally and Chris Higgins on a checking line while continuing to sacrifice his body blocking plenty of shots. He's also been taking more shots. That must continue.
-Callahan has always been a constant, playing with an edge fans in this area appreciate. Not the most skilled, Cally always comes to work, providing great energy with solid checks where he ranks fourth in the league (152). After a poor start, the 24 year-old Rochester native is up to 10 goals and 12 helpers along with 34 penalty minutes. The alternate captain doesn't back down from anyone and is one of the few on our roster who will go to bat for a fallen teammate. This might seem biased but watching Callahan as much as we do, I feel he's one of the best penalty killers in the game. His hard work is always leading to shorthanded opportunities. He might not have one yet but has been responsible for a couple including a great Marian Gaborik shorty in a win over Florida. One of these days, he'll get rewarded.
-Speaking of the Great Gabby, the Rangers would be nowhere without him. While it's true he's slowed down since Vinny Prospal went down, there is Gaborik still tied for the league lead in goals (28) while his 53 total points have him in a third place tie with Alexander Ovechkin. Nobody has more PPG than the Big Ticket, who's at a cool dozen. Not only has he been money but he's proven to be underrated defensively as evidenced by his PK exploits, including the remarkable backhand finish from a supreme angle on Tomas Vokoun. What else do we like is his willingness to compete. When opponents try to throw him off with physicality, Gaborik goes right back standing up for himself. Earlier this week, he shoved down a player earning cheers from the Garden Faithful. So, whoever thought he was soft didn't ever see him play. It's been a great first season on Broadway for Gabby, who hopefully we'll heat back up.
-Marc Staal is finally playing better. Back in a more shutdown defensive role, the third-year blueliner is playing better in his end, making the kind of reads Ranger fans have become accustomed to. He's been a rock on the PK, getting in the path of shots while using his reach to make some excellent reads and clears like during last night on one dreadful Atlanta PP. Staalsie and Dan Girardi are back together most of the time and playing off each other. It's hard to believe Marc only turns 23 in less than a week. For all the criticism he's received, sometimes we're guilty of forgetting how young he is. Blueliners take time to develop and Staal's still a work in progress. The four goals and 10 assists, including a great set up of Enver Lisin
-Ales Kotalik has finally gotten a couple of shots to hit the net. He didn't make it three in a row last night but has been more active. The Rangers really could use Ally to find chemistry with Artie Anisimov, who's had some tough luck lately with goalposts.
-We love Del Zotto's compete. Yes. His scoring has dropped with the power play back to Perry Pearn status. The 19 year-old is the future and is going through offensive struggles with just four assists over a month. In fact, he hasn't scored a goal since Nov.23 versus Columbus. A stretch covering 21 games. DZ is seeing all sorts of time under Tort playing every situation. What we admire most despite predictable mistakes is how hard he plays, throwing his weight around. Amazing to think how mature the kid is. It can't be easy working with Rozsival, who at least has shown more confidence offensively since that Isle debacle (7 A). DZ is going to be a good one. In the words of The Big Whistle:
"Shoot The Puck!"-And finally, we have to give due to Slats for picking up Erik Christensen, who's found his way onto the top line and played well. The five points (2-3-5) he's put up while playing with Dubi and Gabby is a bonus because nothing was expected. That doesn't mean I didn't like him. Always liked Christy's speed. That's been on display recently along with decent hands that produced a nifty one-handed backhand finish in a 3-2 win over Boston. Good stuff.
It would've been easy to dwell on the negatives. Like Boyle's failure to catch up to Slater, killing Chad's shutout bid and two points against a team we can't beat. But hey. The team's played better and at least is showing signs. Give 'em some credit.