Saturday, January 7, 2012

Is this the year for Lundqvist?

Henrik Lundqvist is on a roll. He continued his assault on the league last night by turning away the Pens in a 3-1 road win. Right now, you can make the argument that there's no better goalie on the planet. That's how outstanding Lundqvist has been, running his personal winning streak to six last night while silencing Evgeni Malkin.

It sure would be nice if we could see it but the ridiculous greed between MSG and Time Warner continues to hinder viewers. Not that I'm complaining. I haven't seen many games this year due to my schedule. Given the success rate of the Rangers, text updates, the radio and Twitter have been plenty. It's almost become ritual for me not to tune in and then read a winning text like Marian Gaborik's 23rd goal that beat the Panthers in overtime the other night.

The set up was made by Derek Stepan, who looks more and more like a player to watch. A guy I was excited about from his time spent with Team USA when they won the World Junior Championship (WJC) over Canada. He led the tournament in points and John Carlson's OT winner is a much better image than the blanks they fired this year. Congrats to Sweden on winning their first in 31 years thanks to future Sen Mike Zibanejad's awesome backhand deke in sudden death to upset Russia. It truly is a great tournament that I love watching. A shame that NHL Network cut away from exciting endings in both semis. I'll get to that and more WJC in another entry.

The numbers don't lie. King Henrik has 18 wins, a 1.89 GAA (goals against average) which ranks third, and a gaudy .939 save percentage that places him only behind Boston tandem Tuukka Rask and Vezina incumbent Tim Thomas. His three shutouts aren't quite NHL leader Jon Quick's six thanks to dull LA replacement Darryl Sutter, who has the Kings winning 1-0 games routinely. You can't dispute the hire as the Kings have yet to lose in regulation since he replaced Terry Murray. I just don't like Sutter due to a bad experience when I worked with the Devils that I'll not publish.

When you look at our team that's surpassed all expectations at this point with the league's best record (26-9-4) and most points (56), leading the Bruins by three who host Vancouver now with another game at hand- it's hard to ignore the contributions of Gaborik (23-11-34), Mike Del Zotto (23 points, +25 rating), Ryan Callahan (14-17-31, 7 PPG), Stepan (18 assists, +13), Brad Richards (15 goals, 6 GW), Dan Girardi (110 hits, 100 blocks, 15 Pts) and Ryan McDonagh (17 Pts, +9). With Brandon Dubinsky coming around following a shorthanded goal and helper along with Artem Anisimov, who lately has been cool, these Blueshirts are well balanced. Rookie Carl Hagelin can't be overlooked, whose speed has been an asset along with his scoring (seven goals incl. 2 SHG to lead the club). Anton Stralman, Brandon Prust and even hexed Brian Boyle have all been instrumental as has Winter Classic hero Mike Rupp.

Wherever you look, this team surprises you. On any given night, a player you're not expecting can step up like Ruslan Fedotenko did versus the Flyers at MSG when I eerily picked him to score a big goal. That's what you get thanks to Jack Adams candidate John Tortorella, who has everyone playing hard but still feels the wrath of the Avery Army, who can't sense the obvious. That Sean Avery isn't needed anymore. If he was really that coveted, some team would've picked him up. Maybe it will come at the deadline with him again exiled to Connecticut. I don't feel bad for a guy who has made the most of his popularity, opening up a bar and dating models. Save the drama. It's time for the Avery supporters to go home and support this team entirely. Without the coach, it doesn't happen. Where are the Renney apologists? He's doing a bang up job in Edmonton.

Of course, the work of Lundqvist could boost any coach. No question this is the best hockey of Henrik's career. Every weakness seems to have been fixed. It's a pleasure to watch him make save after save when I can. The accolades are well deserved. Perhaps GMs who were blindfolded last year will actually come to their collective senses and nominate our goalie for an award he has a great shot at. One other thing that stands out is how accomodating King Henrik is, never complaining when Tortorella rests him like he did for Florida by playing dependable backup Marty Biron,who notched his eighth win the other day. It really helps that Biron is such a great team guy who also can get the job done. Tortorella has managed the goalies perfectly, which bodes well for the Spring.

Lundqvist always has a good pulse when the team does lose, which hasn't been often. Since falling at Washington 4-1 when Biron was in net, the Rangers have reeled off four straight, including the hard fought Classic that ticked off Scott Hartnell to the point of crying. He may as well have with how he acted during the HBO 24/7 series. You gotta love how even Claude Giroux was talking trash to our goalie and Anisimov as if that was going to get Hank off his game. After having a goal wiped out yesterday, the Pens crashed Lundqvist's crease but were pushed aside by our boys. These aren't your grandma's Rangers. Every player wears the logo with pride not shown since the last time our team made headlines. That said, any comparisons are preposterous.

Like Tort stated, they're not thinking about winning the Cup when they haven't even reached the halfway point. It's all about the next game/what's ahead. Given the superior goaltending they're getting from Henke and Biron along with the continued contributions from everyone, there's no reason for Garden Faithful not to be confident about this group. They are cohesive and hungry to prove themselves. It's still a tough conference that goes through well oiled machine Boston, who entered today plus-69 in goal differential. A ridiculous stat that borders on insane. Who can beat the Bruins? That's a pretty loaded question. Right now, the Rangers are in the mix with the Flyers and Pens, who I still believe will be there at the end despite struggling since Sid The Kid went down. The Pens play a big game for fifth versus the Devils, who come off a nice home win over Florida. If we were ranking right now:

1.Bruins
2.Rangers
3.Flyers
4.Penguins
5.Panthers
6.Devils
7.Senators
8.Leafs

Notice the resurgent Caps are absent from the list. The way Ovechkin's finally playing along with Tomas Vokoun remembering why they signed him, you have to think Washington will replace Florida. Also keep an eye on the Jets, who if they ever overcome their road troubles, could be dangerous. Don't discount Buffalo either who somehow are only a few points out despite an inconsistent Ryan Miller. Lindy Ruff usually turns it around. There aren't many pushovers. All could be tough outs. So, ranking may not matter. Especially considering past Springs. It's all about staying hot.

Our team's play can't be ignored. But the moment they get ahead of themselves is when it could blow up. Just don't expect them to take anything for granted with Tort pumping the troops up. At the beginning of the season, I curiously picked the Blueshirts to upset both the Pens and Bruins to reach the Conference Final. If it happens no matter the opponent, it would be the first time we've been legit since Mess, Gretz, Leetch, Gravy and Richy still played. That's how I'm judging them.

There's a long way to go but you have to like our chances with Lundqvist doing his thing.

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