Mark this on your calendars Rangers’ fans, hockey is back on Thursday, February 27. That night, the Broadway Blueshirts will host the Chicago Blackhawks. Not only will it be the first game back, but a tall order to come back against the reigning Stanley Cup Champions. Are you serious? Two weeks off, our best players go to Russia to play in the Olympics, then come back and open the back half of the season against the Champs? To borrow a scene from Airplane, “Surely, you can’t be serious.” In reply, the NHL responds with, “I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley.” Despite the odds being stacked against the Rangers, there is room for optimism, yet with a little dose of pessimism, and unending questions that will affect the team’s momentum.
Let’s start with the optimism. As the players return to New York City, familiarity should set in. Family, friends, line mates, and daily routines will make adjustments to daily life easier. Unlike the shortened tournament format of the Olympics, the Rangers have built chemistry from playing alongside each other for some time now. This allows players to know each other’s tendencies and on ice presence most of the time. Caution, this may take some time in the beginning. However, as we have seen from the start of this season to right before the Olympic break, the team can do this. So we, Rangers fans, should not fret.
Another positive is the return of Derek Dorsett. As you may not remember, Dorsett was lost in January. This was due to an injury to his left leg, a broken fibula. Unfortunately, this kept out him of the lineup for about 6 weeks. Before the injury, Dorsett was a staple on the 4th line. Through 37 games this season, Dorsett has just 3 goals and 2 assists. To add, he is a -5 rating while accumulating 103 minutes in penalties. However, it was not offensive abilities that made him a constant for head coach Alain Vigneault. His gritty, tough-nosed play made him resonate with fans. Unafraid to stick up for his teammates, his presence will, no doubt, bolster the team’s confidence and improve the Rangers’ forecheck. As we have seen, the pressure can be suffocating, frustrating, and tiresome for opponents when executed properly. Just ask Erik Karlsson of Sweden…
Now for the pessimism. Where to start? How about will the Olympics affect the Rangers? Of those coming back, three out of the seven Rangers sent to Sochi are coming back with medals. Rick Nash has his second gold medal with Team Canada. Henrik Lundqvist and Carl Hagelin are coming home with Silver Medals playing for Team Sweden. However, empty-handed are four others. Mats Zuccarello of Team Norway, suffered an injury that will keep him sidelined for 3-4 weeks. Though minor as it is, it’s his offensive ability that will be missed. Coming into the Olympic break, Zuccarello was leading the Rangers team in points, with 43. His 15 goals and 28 assists, with a +5 rating may leave a hole the team’s offense. Moreover, his six game, eight point streak has come to an end and could affect Brassard’s six game eight point streak. It is important to note how his absence will be felt on the third line. His uncanny ability to set up Derrick Brassard and Benoit Pouliot will need to be filled by another playmaker. Also, this line has been the second power play unit for Vigneault. This means other players will need to fill his role. With a playoff berth on the line, no player should feel a lack of urgency. It’s a do or die mentality. This brings us to the three American-born Rangers who played on Team USA: Ryan Callahan, Ryan McDonagh, and Derek Stepan. Where do we go from here? Much was expected of the American squad, even as far as gold medal contenders. Unfortunately, a lack of offense and self-pity plagued the US team. As a result, Team USA never recovered and left empty-handed. Hopefully, this doesn’t carry over to our Rangers. Despite the poor showing of the team, Callahan, McDonagh, and even Stepan did us proud. “Mac Truck” led the way with his offensive abilities adding one goal, one assist, with a +1 rating through 6 games. Callahan registered one assist through six games. Stepan did not register a point in his Olympic appearance, playing only one game. However, it was the hard work and effort that made these players valuable to the US. Their play garnered praise from both the American coaches and NBC broadcasters. The trust in Callahan and McDonagh was so much that they ranked in the top five in minutes played for their positions. But you have to wonder if they may have some type of Olympic hangover. After losing to their rivals on Friday and then again on Saturday to Team Finland, will our US Rangers come back with an emptiness of emotion? These are professionals and should be able to weather this storm. However, there could be doubts in the back of some peoples’ minds. But if their individual play from the Olympics carries over to their New York team, we won’t need to worry. Then, there is the possible let down from Lundqvist and Hagelin. They lost on Sunday to an aggressive and dominating Team Canada. Lundqvist, as good as he was in the Olympics, could not stop all 39 shots on goal. Three got past the net minder, but no offensive support was afforded him. Even the speedy Hagelin was a non-factor. But, like I said, these are professionals. They should be able to rise above it all and switch their focus towards the main prize, the Stanley Cup.
Lastly, there are the questions. Who will be resigned? Who will be traded? Who may be called up and, are they ready for the bright lights and big city of New York? Will the team’s first half momentum, carry over to the second half of the season on the 27th? Only time will tell. General Manager Glen Sather is in the unpopular position of answering those questions. If there is one thing that we should heed, it is cautions. There is no need to stress about the unknown. That’s what Sather and the Rangers’ organization is paid for. We, the fans, can only wait and see.