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With a 4-1 win over the Capitals on Sunday, the Rangers played their 24th game of a lockout-shortened 48-game 2013 season. How do the Blueshirts look at the halfway point? ESPNNewYork.com's Katie Strang breaks it down with her mid-season report card:
Adding a star like Rick Nash to a team that finished with the best regular-season record in the Eastern Conference last year only heightens expectations. And although the Rangers are beginning to look like the team that grinded and gritted its way to the Eastern Conference finals last spring, we still haven't seen their best yet. But all hope is not lost, as it took a solid six weeks for the team to find their groove last season. The biggest question is whether the Rangers can re-assert their rugged, hard-nosed style of play that made them one of the toughest teams to beat last year. Even in a compressed schedule, there is still time.
Nash has lived up to his billing as the type of elite player that can push a team to the next level, and that's never been more apparent than now. Sidelined with an injury for four games last month, Nash has been on fire since returning to the lineup. The big man has registered 11 points (six goals, five assists) in the six games he's been back, and his presence completely changes the dynamic of the offense. He's helped jump-start the team and some of its top performers, namely Brad Richards, who snapped a 15-game goal drought last week. However, the team is still seeking more from Richards and Marian Gaborik, who have solid numbers but can be invisible at times. Averaging only 2.54 goals per game, the Rangers need better production from the entire supporting cast (case in point: Brian Boyle) if they are to remain in the playoff picture.
Boasting three of the best defenseman on their blue line in Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh and Marc Staal, the Rangers have been pretty stout in their own end. They rank sixth in the league in goals against with 2.33 per game and have received significant contributions from guys like Michael Del Zotto and Anton Stralman as well. Otherwise relatively healthy, the team did suffer a blow to their back end in losing Staal to an eye injury, although it is not believed to be career or season-threatening.
Yes, the power-play has improved, as of late, but the unit has been abysmal through too many significant stretches this season. Ranked dead-last in the league at times, the Rangers (23rd, 15%) still lack a true power-play specialist and you can bet that a right-handed defenseman that plays the PP will be a top priority as the trade deadline approaches. The team's penalty kill has been pretty good, especially considering the personnel lost from last season. Without Brandon Prust, Brandon Dubinsky, Ruslan Fedotenko and Artem Ansimov, the Rangers still rank 12th in league with an 83.3% success rate. Adding versatile fourth-liner Darroll Powe was a shrewd move for the front-loaded Rangers, as was the signing of veteran center Jeff Halpern. Both players help to fill the void left by the departure of some of the team's "glue guys" from last season.
It's hard to top last season for Henrik Lundqvist, but the reigning Vezina Trophy winner has remained steady for the Blueshirts. With an 11-8-1 record on the season, Lundqvist is eighth in the league with a .921 save percentage and 10th with 2.24 goals against average. The 31-year-old Swede , still seeking his first shutout of the season, hasn't stolen games like he did last year but he's still been very consistent for a team that hasn't always bailed him out with much offense. Backup Martin Biron has also been solid in relief, with a 2-1-1 record, .923 save percentage and 2.18 goals against average.
Granted, the lockout robbed him of conducting his notoriously-difficult training camp regimen, but coach John Tortorella still doesn't seem happy with the team's level of mental and physical conditioning. Some of that is circumstance. Some of that is the players themselves. But he takes some responsibility as well. Tortorella still has some challenges ahead handling some of the team's struggling stars in the streaky Gaborik and Richards, but he's still one of the top coaches in the league with his ability to coax the most out of his players.