CHICAGO - It has been painfully evident for weeks that Rick Nash and Henrik Lundqvist -- two of the seven Rangers chosen for Olympic teams -- have needed to reach back into their pasts to find their A-games.
So far, those levels have come in fits and starts, but without these two stars leading the Broadway cast, the Blueshirts' run will close in Montreal on April 12, after the final game of the regular season. If Nash and Lundqvist regain their top form, the Rangers, who beat the Blackhawks, 3-2, last night, could make the playoffs in a weak division.
The two highest-paid Rangers have had success against the Blackhawks, with Lundqvist's numbers impressive entering Wednesday night's game: 4-1-2 and a 1.97 goals-against average. Nash's damage (24 goals and 51 points in 55 games) came as a Columbus Blue Jacket.
However, the past is past, and playing at the United Center against the defending Stanley Cup champions is a daunting challenge for any team this season. The Blackhawks are now 15-3-6 at home.
To be sure, Nash and Lundqvist, who made his fifth start in the last six games, appear to be slowly recovering from slumps that tarnished the first half of the season.
Nash, who missed 16 games with post-concussion issues, scored twice in Monday's 4-3 shootout loss to Columbus and has been getting better shots, not playing as much on the perimeter. Perhaps the backing of the GMs running Team Canada will spark a surge from the power forward, who has scored 30 or more goals seven times.
Lundqvist, who sat for three straight games in December, returned and won two straight in Florida and stopped 36 shots against Columbus, a small sample but evidence that his timing and confidence is returning.
Both coach Alain Vigneault and several players saw Wednesday night's game as a yardstick to determine how near or far the team is from the Blackhawks, who have 10 players bound for Sochi, were leading the league in goals with 163, and had amassed 67 points, two behind the NHL's best team, the Anaheim Ducks.
So the compete level from Lundqvist, Nash and throughout the lineup had to be high to have a chance for points against the deep Blackhawks.
Consider: Mats Zuccarello is the only Ranger with 30 points. Chicago has seven players with at least 31.
And the Rangers hadn't won here in almost four years -- a 3-2 overtime victory on Jan. 16, 2009. The win could create some swagger and perhaps mark a turnaround in a 22-20-3 season.
There is plenty of hockey left -- and who knows what help the trade deadline will bring -- but the Rangers were floating amid nine Eastern Conference teams separated by just six points from fifth place to 13th.
The table is set. The next month will be a make-or-break stretch at home, where the Rangers are 8-10-3.
They play four straight at Madison Square Garden beginning tomorrow night against Dallas, and after a visit to Ottawa on Jan. 18, they won't fly again until Feb. 6, to Pittsburgh, for the following day's game against the Penguins, the last before the Olympic break.
After the Senators game, the Rangers play three more at the Garden, two at Yankee Stadium, and another three at home. That's 12 of 13 in New York City. A streak one way or the other could be the tipping point.