At the Christmas break last season, the Rangers had played just 32 games and compiled 40 points (18-10-4). They were on a seven-game winning streak; confidence was high. After the holiday, they went 6-3 to reach the halfway point of the season with 52 points.
This year, the Blueshirts stumbled into the break (3-6-1 in the last 10) and with 36 games in the books, have 44 points (20-12-4) with just five games to go to the midway point. They’d have to win four of the next five to match last season’s mark.
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It’s a tale of two seasons, with the final script unwritten, as the Rangers return to practice on Sunday before a three-game road trip. Key players, old and new, have underachieved after a nine-game winning streak. Pieces are missing. The roster is close to the salary-cap ceiling, limiting flexibility.
Rewind the tape to last December. Veteran Martin St. Louis was 11-13-24 in those first 32 games before fading down the stretch and retiring. The void left by his absence in the top six has not yet been filled.
Carl Hagelin was 7-6-13 in 32 games through Dec. 23. His speed on the forecheck created room for others, and he was effective on the penalty-kill. Neither Viktor Stalberg or Emerson Etem (3-9-12 combined in 47 games) have been adequate replacements.
Spare defenseman Matt Hunwick already had played 27 games, was mobile, mostly dependable, posted seven assists and was a plus-8. Goalie Cam Talbot was 3-3-1 in seven starts, although his immense contribution came when Henrik Lundqvist went down with a vascular injury on Jan. 31.
On the plus side of the current ledger, at least short-term, Kevin Klein and Dan Girardi are expected back from injuries, and Klein might eventually be on the first defensive pair with captain Ryan McDonagh as coach Alain Vigneault continues to adjust his pairings to prepare for matchups against potent opponents. Backup goalie Antti Raanta, recovering from a head injury after taking a shot to the mask in Minnesota, will be tested, because the Rangers still have seven back-to-back sets and a handful of series with three games in four nights.
Of course, this club rises and falls on the talent of Lundqvist, now 33, who needs more support from scorers, a lament that sounds like a broken record, and its defensive structure. The mindset and will needs to be stronger.
Twenty-five of the 46 games remaining are on the road, where the Blueshirts are 6-7-3. They do close the season with five of seven at Madison Square Garden, where they are 14-5-1. That last grouping of games looms as critical in determining a playoff spot or seeding.
But the Rangers can’t control the schedule. They can, to a greater extent, control their personnel, and the most difficult decision will involve pending UFA Keith Yandle.
With the trade deadline on Feb. 29, will Yandle (1-18-19) be shopped?
Yandle’s $5.5 million salary — half of which is paid by the Coyotes, his former team, and carries over in a trade — should be appealing to Western teams hoping to make the postseason. But how much can the Rangers get back for a rental? On the market next season, Yandle will command at least $6 million per year. In the Pacific Division, teams from second through seventh place were separated by six points entering last night. Yandle might make a difference there. Would a package of Yandle, a prospect and a pick interest Winnipeg or Colorado in the Central Division for a top six forward? Or do the Rangers keep Yandle and try to make another playoff run with Dylan McIlrath and rookie Brady Skjei as extras?
Rangers vs. Isles in playoffs?
Since we’re looking backward and forward, here was my Metropolitan Division forecast on Oct. 6: Capitals, Blue Jackets, Rangers, Islanders, Penguins, Flyers, Devils, Hurricanes. Near the halfway point of the season, I’ll take a mulligan on Columbus, and tweak one other prediction. It appears that this could finally be the year: A Rangers-Islanders playoff series for the first time since 1994. Washington has been terrific and should win the division. The locals are good enough to finish 2-3, in either order. The fourth spot is a toss-up. Maybe the Atlantic Division, led by Montreal and including the improved Florida Panthers, gets five spots in the East.
Heard Around . . .
Many teams organize fathers’ trips, and the Rangers have had two under Vigneault. This year, a mothers/siblings trip is being considered . . . Three prospects are playing in the World Junior Championship in Helsinki, which currently is being televised by the NHL Network: goalies Brandon Halverson (USA) and Adam Huska (Slovakia) and center Aleksi Saarela (Finland) . . . The Hartford Wolf Pack (12-15-2) is struggling. They are 14th in the 15-team AHL Eastern Conference.