SUNRISE, Fla. — The Rangers took the practice ice for the first time in 2016 on Friday, in a town with an appropriate name for new beginnings.
Except, of course, in the NHL, the new year signals not a new start but the approaching midpoint of a long, long road — hockey’s version of the dog days.
Derek Stepan defined it Friday as games roughly 40 through 60, something every player experiences but that teams such as the Rangers — who regularly play deep into May or even June — experience even more acutely.
“The dog days throughout the season are the biggest grind,” Stepan said. “Every year it’s the teams that are able to find a way to compete the right way in those games, those are the teams that typically have success.”
The good news for the Rangers — or possibly the bad news, depending on how you look at it — is that the three opponents leading up to the midpoint are certain to get their attention.
First up Saturday night are the Florida Panthers, who after their Carolina NFL namesakes’ loss last Sunday have the longest active winning streak among pro teams with that name — seven in a row.
Then the Rangers return home next week to face the two teams with the best current records in the league in the Stars and Capitals.
The Rangers would make the playoffs if the season ended today — which it does not — on the strength of the cushion their 16-3-2 start gave them. But their 5-10-2 record since then has them in the middle of the tightly packed standings.
Fans have come to take it for granted that the Rangers will qualify for the Stanley Cup tournament, which they have done for five straight seasons and nine of the past 10. They had better hope the players do not buy into that mentality.
Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist promised they will not.
“No, no, each year the league is getting better and tougher and the competition is higher,” he said. “Look at last year. Boston and L.A. missed the playoffs. It’s never a guarantee . . . You have to earn it.”
(The Bruins had won the Presidents’ Trophy in 2013-14, and the Kings had won the Cup that season.)
“The key is not to think about what’s ahead; it’s just right now that matters,” said Lundqvist, who reiterated a thought he expressed last spring about savoring the journey and not obsessing over the destination.
“It’s such a big part of your life, the regular season, you want to make the most of it,” he said. “Obviously, you’re going to go through the ups and downs, and lately it’s been tough for us, but we’re moving in the right direction.”
Notes & quotes: Defenseman Dan Girardi, who has a crack in his right kneecap, skipped practice. “With any fracture, you’re always looking at four to six weeks,” coach Alain Vigneault said. “I figure in a couple of more weeks we shouldn’t hear about this anymore.”