Thursday, April 5, 2012

High anxiety coming to MSG

It's been quite some time since there were meaningful games at Madison Square Garden. No. We're not talking about a .500 Knicks squad that's trying to make the NBA playoffs without it's starting point guard and power forward. This also isn't like the Rangers squeaking in and then teasing us. For once anyway, MSG's hockey club has made this a great season thus far, exceeding expectations.

Not in my wildest dreams did I see the Blueshirts winning the league's toughest division let alone clinching the top seed for next week's tournament. I still find myself questioning if it's real. New York Rangers. 2011-12 Atlantic Division Champs is unfamiliar territory. At least to many younger Garden Faithful who weren't around when a Curse was lifted. It's unfair to draw comparisons between that team chalk full of Hall Of Famers and this one, who even with Brad Richards' addition were picked to finish anywhere from fourth to eighth by experts.

So here we are with Game 81 against the big bad Penguins kinda meaningless. Unless you're John Tortorella who intends to play the final two hard like the other 80 that got his team in this position. The Rangers find themselves tied with the Canucks for the NHL lead with 109 points, challenging for the President's Trophy. Both have two left. Home ice throughout the playoffs could come in handy. But I can't think that far ahead. I'm more locked in on right now, which really is who will it be. The Caps, Sabres or even the Panthers. For now, we'll just have to wait and see. I don't have a preference. If you earn the No.1 spot as the Blueshirts have, it shouldn't matter who they face. It's up to them to protect their territory and use it to their advantage.

Maybe that seems a bit cocky but not in the least. One thing the playoffs have shown is that home ice isn't what it used to be. Don't take it for granted. That's my message for these Rangers, who have followed the team mantra Play The Right Way. As captain Ryan Callahan said the other night, this is what you play for. Henrik Lundqvist made sure to point out that it doesn't really mean anything if they don't move forward. It's about remembering the bad taste they've had the past couple of times they've made the postseason. If it's the Caps, there will be a daily reminder.

This year, the Blueshirts want to be taken seriously. Well, if they didn't have your attention before, they certainly have it now. Marian Gaborik is playing the best hockey of his career, delivering big goals and two-way hockey that would make Gordon Bombay proud. In Year Three on Broadway, he's gotten his nose dirty, which is what's required when the competition picks up. It took Richards a while to settle in and find chemistry with Gaborik but now that he has, they've teamed with tenacious rookie Carl Hagelin to form a dynamic line. Hagelin is the one you didn't see coming. The classic overachiever who makes good. Another Red Berenson product who will do anything to win.

Speaking of which, you can't bring up that in your face style without mentioning Captain Cally, who already has taken the mantle and run with it in his first year as captain. Nobody plays harder, gives more than the Rochester kid who leads by example. We're lucky to have him. If only he could get through between now and Wednesday to buddy Brandon Dubinsky. Duby's just as important if they're to go anywhere this Spring. So too is Artem Anisimov, who shows flashes of brilliance like his end to end power play goal the other night that killed the Flyers. Whoever Tortorella chooses to play with Derek Stepan better be ready because that's the line who must provide secondary scoring to relieve pressure on our horses.

On the back end, Dan Girardi has been the backbone logging significant minutes while successfully teaming with sophomore Ryan McDonagh, who is scary good for his age. I'll never comprehend what Bob Gainey saw parting with the former Badger in the Scott Gomez trade. One which will continue to be brought up in these parts for a long time. The instincts he has are rare. Anticipating where to be defensively, which makes him difficult on the game's best while knowing when to go so he can score and set up goals like Tuesday.

While the play of Danny G and McD have been crucial, Mike Del Zotto's resurgence and Marc Staal's return have been a big boost. Without Del Zotto's skill that's produced his first 10-goal, 40-point season, our blueline would lack a playmaking D. Even if he does drive us a bit crazy with his penchant for passing, it would be unwise to overlook his contributions. Del Zotto's recent two-goal, three-point game came at the right time which can only benefit the Rangers. They need him to be a factor. As for Staal, it's been a rollercoaster since returning for the Winter Classic. Some nights, he looks great while others, he struggles which is to be expected. Lately, Marc's played better which is a big piece to the puzzle. Since being paired with Anton Stralman, he's stepped up his play. Offensively and defensively, Staal's improving. The true test comes in the second season.

What's made this year so special is that the Rangers are a T-E-A-M. From stars such as Lundqvist, Gaborik and Richards to ultimate warriors like Brian Boyle, Brandon Prust, Ruslan Fedotenko and Stu Bickel, they are a complete roster who doesn't get by on talent. Rather effort, which has earned them the 51-22-7 record they bring into Pittsburgh tonight. When rivals have challenged them, they've stood up and excelled. This team plays better when the chips are down. If opponents want to run roughshod with our stars, expect a Prust, Bickel or Mike Rupp to be heard from.

Winning in the regular season is not easy but it's definitely not as challenging as the postseason. To have the ultimate success and bring home the franchise's first Stanley Cup in 18 years, they'll have to battle hard against whoever stands in the way. It's who's mentally and physically ready to win those battles that determines the outcome. Our Blueshirts get their jerseys dirty, sacrificing arms and legs to succeed. The hitting will be ferocious and so will the shot blocking that's become an art at Penn Station for a club that doesn't know the word quit. Boyle, Callahan, Girardi and McDonagh will do whatever it takes. So will Prust, who the coach must make sure he gives enough shifts to.

All year, Lundqvist has been the rock between the pipes. Whether he beats out Jon Quick for the Vezina pales in comparison to what he wants. Fair or unfair, King Henrik's won only two playoff rounds. Both came with No.68 and a D that wasn't as good as the current group. Outside of the five-game ouster of the Devils in '09, he's yet to really steal a series. We're not saying he has to be brilliant. These Rangers are stronger than the previous rosters who were only good enough for maybe a round. Hank only needs to emulate the performance in Philadelphia where he made money stops. He must be the difference. If he is, it's hard to see us losing early.

No doubt the pressure is on beginning next week. For True Blue like myself and the other blueseaters, this is what we live for. You're damn right there'll be high anxiety once the first puck is dropped. Are you ready?

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