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With Sunday's Stadium Series game against the New Jersey Devils quickly approaching, it's hard not to think back on the last time the Rangers were featured in an outdoor game.
The Rangers beat the Philadelphia Flyers in a bitter divisional clash at Citizens Bank Park, edging them 3-2 on Jan. 2, 2012. Tough guy Mike Rupp tallied twice, Marc Staal returned after a lengthy absence from a concussion, Henrik Lundqvist secured the win with a stop on Danny Briere's penalty shot attempt with 20 seconds remaining in regulation. And of course, head coach John Tortorella had his say, blasting the officials in a postgame tirade that earned him a hefty fine from the league.
|The times have sure been a-changin' for the Rangers since Torts took off for Vancouver and Alain Vigneault took over.|
That was the signature Black-and-Blueshirts team that finished first in the Eastern Conference, before being bounced in the third round of the playoffs by the Devils later that spring.
Fast forward two years and this is a very different club.
The mainstays are still here: Lundqvist, Staal, captain Ryan Callahan, defenseman Dan Girardi, veteran center Brad Richards.
But so much has changed for the Rangers.
Most notably, the coach.
Gone is Tortorella's brash, fiery and often grating presence, and with him went that style of play, too. The Rangers back then were notoriously defensive-minded with a relentless fervor applied to shot-blocking.
Under new coach Alain Vigneault, who took over after Tortorella was fired last spring, the mood is wildly different.
He is not an in-your-face type. Usually, his zealous gum-chewing is the most aggressive thing you see from him on the bench. And he largely lets players handle the ups and downs of the season internally.
"He's definitely not a micro-manager. He's very even-keel and he likes to let the team take care of its own self," veteran center Dominic Moore told ESPNNewYork.com. "Through tough stretches, him being really even-keel counts for a lot, especially with the way things were going early. It would've been easy to get bent out of shape and get out of character, but he stuck to his guns."
Even when the team returned home from an atrocious nine-game road trip to start the season with an abysmal 3-6-0 record, there was no panic. He didn't change into a fire-breathing taskmaster. Instead, he expressed confidence his team would get where it needed to be.
"He trusts the leadership group in here. He trusts the guys to take care of it, if something's wrong, for us to correct it," Callahan said. "By no means is he not going to step into the room to tell us when things are bad, but at the same time, he leaves a lot of it in our hands, too."
Turns out, that worked out just fine.
Though the Rangers endured some grim moments early on, times when their playoff chances looked bleak, they have done an about-face in the past two months. On the outside looking in for much of the first half of the season, the Rangers are now sixth in the Eastern Conference and second in the Metropolitan Division.
"They're obviously much more offensive," offered one player within the division. "Which is one thing if you're not getting the goaltending, but they're getting the goaltending now, too."
Lundqvist is indeed now playing like Lundqvist again, following a poor start to the season. The 2012 Vezina Trophy winner held opponents to two goals or fewer in all of his past seven starts, with a 1.43 goals against average, a .963 save percentage and one shutout during that span.
He's also getting better goal support. The Rangers have tallied three goals or more in eight of their past 11 games.
Though the Blueshirts are managing fewer goals per game than last season -- 2.43 versus 2.62 in the lockout-shortened 2013 -- their style is much more offensively opportunistic. And they have been able to capitalize on both their speed and skill.
Through the first 53 games of the season, their Corsi rating -- a metric designed to measure puck possession by quantifying all shot attempts -- is 52.7 percent as opposed to 50.9 percent last season.
Their top players are now performing up to par after a lackluster first half, as well.
Richards is having a bounce-back year with 13 goals and a team-leading 38 points. Chris Kreider and Mats Zuccarello have each chipped in with 13 goals apiece, a pleasantly surprising amount of production from each player. And Rick Nash has been absolutely on fire in recent weeks.
The star winger, acquired in a blockbuster deal in the summer of 2012, has 10 goals in the past 10 games. The effect? A much more dynamic, dangerous offensive team than we saw earlier this year.
"They're playing much better as a team, much more settled," one NHL analyst said. "Of course, they're getting better goaltending -- they didn't have that in the first half -- and Nash is scoring goals. He's a different player.
"And Kreider's speed and strength gives them a whole new dynamic; it gives them a left winger that they didn't have before."
Perhaps the starkest change, though, has been the improvement of the team's power play.
The Rangers rank seventh in the league with a 20.7 percent success rate, a dramatic uptick from recent years -- 23rd in the league with 15.7 percent the previous two seasons. Why?
"We work on special teams more than any other team I've ever played on during practice," Moore said.
Spending time on the power play and penalty killing in practice is no longer just an afterthought. Rather, it has become a vital element of the Rangers' daily practice sessions. Now, too, the team has a coach devoted to the unit, associate coach Scott Arniel, where they did not before.
In fact, the team's power-play struggles have been so few and far between that Thursday night's performance -- in which they were blanked on all three man-up opportunities in the team's 2-1 loss to St. Louis -- seemed an anomaly.
"It is the first time in a long time I think our power play let us down," Richards said.
For all the change the team has made, it hasn't always been an easy transition. You can't go from a personality such as Tortorella's to Vigneault's more affable demeanor without a bit of whiplash in the beginning.
The growing pains were evident on the team's nine-game road trip to start the season, particularly in the defensive zone.
"Our defensive zone has changed quite a bit, to a man-to-man from more of a zone. We used to collapse deep in the defensive zone," Callahan said. "We seem to be creating more offensively, for whatever reason, through the system change. I think that's the biggest thing."
The Rangers have since become a much stingier team in their own end, reducing the type of mistakes and breakdowns that pockmarked their first half, and possessing the puck more for offensive zone time. They also recently added a much-needed, right-handed defenseman in Kevin Klein via a trade with Nashville, balancing out their back end.
"Earlier in the year we'd get it in and throw it away and they'd be in our zone for another minute. We'd dump it out and they'd come back in and we'd be spending half the game in our zone. That's a big difference," Moore said. "And that, once you have more puck possession, you can play more offense, you have a good chance at playing the puck and moving with speed, which is our strength."
And while that doesn't mean those problems don't still arise in their own end (see Kreider's coverage on Alexander Steen's first-period goal in Thursday's loss), the team seems to be limiting those errors and adapting to Vigneault's style of play.
Whether it's tightening up in their own end or embracing a new philosophy on offense, the identity of the team is starting to take shape. And though the team has dropped two straight games heading into Sunday's match against the Devils at Yankee Stadium, they seem to be on a promising path to yet another postseason berth.
"It takes a while," Callahan said. "You get something drilled into your head for so long, that it's like second-nature. To break that, it's tough.
"I think you can see in the past maybe two months where we've turned things around," he said. "It's starting to become that second nature where guys aren't thinking on the ice anymore, just reacting to it."