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Wednesday, November 30, 2011
To be the best, beat the best

By Mike Hume

The Canucks. The Sharks. The Caps. The Flyers. The Pens. The New York Rangers have beaten them all this season. And they’ve done so convincingly.

Add up the final margins from those contests and the Blueshirts have racked up a 21-8 goal differential against five teams widely considered to be Stanley Cup favorites. And that margin would likely be even more lopsided if the Rangers hadn’t started the second intermission a little prematurely Tuesday night.

The normal early-season caveats apply, but the Rangers should love where they’re sitting right now. They endured a Magellan-like travel schedule of seven games to start the season and, unlike the famed explorer, the Rangers survived to the tune of a 3-2-2 record. They’re third in the league in goals allowed per game and they’re No. 1 in the league in points percentage (.690).

As of Wednesday morning they trailed the East-leading Pittsburgh Penguins by just 3 points, and have played four fewer games than the flightless birds of the ‘Burgh. Yes, the Pens have soared sans Sidney Crosby, but the Rangers continue to weather the absence of top D Marc Staal.

When I suggested this summer that the Blueshirts’ Stanley Cup window was now open, there was some (justifiable) skepticism. But after this recent stretch, it’s becoming clear that New York belongs in any discussion of the league’s elite teams.

For its NHL preview, ESPN The Magazine looked back at all the post-lockout Stanley Cup champions to get a good idea of what each champ looked like from a statistical perspective. The factor that correlated most closely with Cup success was a winning record against the NHL’s top eight teams. If the Rangers can continue their success against the upper crust -- and a six-game February gauntlet that includes tilts against the Flyers, Caps, Bruins, Blackhawks and Pens should provide just such a test -- there will be no reason to think that the Rangers are anything but Stanley Cup caliber.