Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Becoming A Season To Remember

Football season is more or less over already. I root for the Bills, and so it is questionable whether I even like professional football; the last playoff game the Bills played was the day before my daughter's birthday--her first birthday. Sabrina, I remind you all, has a drivers license and will be graduating high school in six months. I am no longer an official "fan" of the Vikings, but I pay attention to them the way many people pay attention to spouses they've divorced--and they turned into a train wreck as the year progressed, too, although they at least had a semi-legitimate excuse with a series of catastrophic injuries decimating their offense. In any event, as most of this area prepares for the joy that the New York Giants' return to the playoffs is going to bring, I am already fully into hockey season.
Which looked like a dim possibility when last year's playoffs ended. The Rangers were the first team eliminated from the playoffs, and they looked terrible with little hope for the future. But a series of judicious free agent signings, one really good trade, and the farm system bearing fruit have spawned a legitimate revival, to the point where the team is tied for first place with the defending Stanley Cup' champions in the best division in sports. How good is the Metropolitan Division this year? The Washington Capitals recently had a six-game winning streak--and lost ground. The Capitals are seventh overall in a thirty-team league in points--and fifth in their own division. I saw a note on NHL.com a few days ago that noted that Metro Division teams were 26-3-4 against teams from other divisions in the month of December up to whatever day it was. The Penguins, said defending Cup champs, recently outdid the Caps by winning seven in a row, and if it's possible for the game's reigning superstar to have a career revival, Sidney Crosby is doing it--he is scoring at nearly a goal-a-game pace, and seems to have taken the emergence of Connor McDavid in Edmonton as a rival for best player in the game as a challenge to lift his game. The Columbus Blue Jackets outdid the Penguins by winning nine in a row, a streak that is still active, and have lost only five games in regulation time all year; when all the dust settles, they may be in first place, because they have kept pace with the leaders in the division while having played four fewer games than the Rangers. And the hated Flyers recently pulled off a ten-game winning streak, to insert themselves like a suppository into the upper reaches of the division, although their staying power in that territory seems problematical in the long run.
Which leaves the Rangers. In the first 25 games of the season, they played like a relic from the early 1990's, scoring goals at levels not seen since the days Adam Graves and Brian Leetch were patrolling the ice. The last ten games, they have reverted to what they were in the Tom Renney years--clamping down defensively and winning tight, low-scoring games. They have survived some curious coaching decisions and personnel moves, and some serious injuries, too, to not only stay in the race, but to set the pace in a division of unprecedented quality.
The question now is, of course, whether they can keep it up. There are obvious flaws in the roster as currently constructed--not on the order of Tanner Glass playing twelve minutes a night, or (going way back) Michel Petit committing three gaffes a game, but there are still crimson red flags playing every night. I have no idea, other than the gigantic contract he was signed to three years ago, why Dan Girardi is still playing nearly twenty minutes a night; he is awful, and the rest of the league has figured out that he goes down to try to block shots every time there's a possible shot, and so now they just wait for him to slide out of the way and then make their play. Kevin Klein, who played over his head for the last two years, suddenly looks old, Methuselah old, and is even more of a liability than Girardi. These two play every night, and the perfectly competent Adam Clendening rots in the press box, and the not-great-but-could-get-better Dylan McIlrath was waived early in the year.The unthinkable happened a couple of weeks ago--The King was benched for a couple of games after a rough week. That Lundqvist has been spectacular the last three games since returning to the ice is immaterial; you don't bench the best goalie of his generation for Antii Fucking Raanta, even if Raanta is great as back-ups go.
But the Rangers are winning in spite of these blunders, and the lineup is filled with young players getting better, and with useful players that aren't stars but actually contribute tangible results to the mix. They have kept winning while several key players have been hurt. And two things about this team make me feel optimistic that the good times can continue to roll. One was the aforementioned change in styles--good teams will beat other teams playing whatever way they want to play it, something that is a quality of great teams from the past. And the second thing is that of this team's ten losses, six have come to teams that are mediocre or bad.They are 11-4 against teams currently in playoff position. Which suggests that when they show up to play, they win. The teams that build good records by beating everyone they are supposed to beat are the teams that lose in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
What has been most gratifying, though, has been the emergence of the younger players on the team. Kevin Hayes, JT Miller, Chris Kreider, Jesper Fast, and Jimmy Vesey are all under 26, and are all major contributors to the success of the team this year. And I have to say that although I knew for a long time that Rick Nash is a real good player, I was very slow to appreciate how complete his game is. He is not only an offensive force to be reckoned with virtually every night, but he is the team's best defensive forward, too. Unlike many "star" forwards, he is always very visible and very prominent in the defensive zone, and is better at carrying the puck out of the zone than any of the team's defensemen. I know he's got a big contract, and that he is getting older, and that he hasn't scored a lot of goals in his career in the playoffs--but he is the team's best non-goalie, and the margin between him and number two isn't close. Management would be nuts to trade him.
So anyway, as the season unfolds, it's going to be interesting to see where the team ends up. And the way the playoffs are set up, it might be better to end up in fourth or fifth place and make the playoffs as a wild-card than to win the division. The opposite division is having a very down year, and even the Canadiens are one Carey Price injury from being chum. There isn't another team in the Atlantic that is capable of beating any of the five top Metro teams in a playoff series right now--although Tampa could get their shit together at any time, it must be noted.
And it could go south, too. The longer he coaches this team, the more convinced I am that Alain Vigneault is a decent coach, but more than most, one with a shelf life--and his time of effectiveness has expired. I could be wrong, and it might be that the team's surprising start is being helped by his coaching. But it is sure hard to see that, and it's easy to find examples where it sure seems as though he is an impediment, that the team could be even better if not for his decisions. The burial of Clendening is the most obvious, but a lot of his ice time decisions are curious, to be kind. I think Girardi is done, to be truthful--but it must be said that if he played third-pairing instead of first-pairing minutes, he might be more effective than he is. He's not young, and he was never Chris Chelios anyway, so playing sixteen instead of twenty-three minutes a night would be a lot better for him.
And there is a sneaking suspicion that the only substantial difference between last year's team and this year's is that this year's team scores on the power play and doesn't give up power play goals. While specialty team play is important, it is rarely the determining quality that wins Stanley Cups. The deeper a team gets into the playoffs, the less likely they are to commit penalties, and the more likely they are to be better at 5-on-5. You can't win four rounds on a good power play.
But at least they will get a chance to find out. I seriously had doubts that the Rangers would even be a playoff team this year; to find them fighting for first place overall nearly halfway through the season has been an incredible development. And even if the bottom does fall out, they are 14 points, seven full games, ahead of the ninth-place team in the conference, and no one gives up 14 points in a half-season. There will be playoff hockey at the Garden this year.

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