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This Is the Slump We Naïvely Hoped the Rangers Could Avoid

As the NHL season enters the home stretch and it becomes clearer that the Rangers will have to battle just to hang on to a playoff spot, it's probably worth noting that sneaking in as the eight seed — and facing the Flyers team that topped them 4–2 yesterday — is hardly a prize. In four games against Philly this year, the Rangers have earned exactly zero points. Which isn't to say that crazy things can't happen in the Stanley Cup Playoffs — just ask last year's Flyers team — or that the Rangers haven't skated with Philly at least for certain stretches this season. (They opened the first period strong yesterday, then tilted the ice in their favor again in the third. At least we can't blame the power play in this one, what with the lack of penalties called on the Flyers.) But this is not a team the Rangers have matched up well with.

It wasn't all that long ago that the Rangers were playing as well as could have reasonably been expected: Despite a young team and a slew of injuries that made the roster even younger, the Rangers had avoided prolonged slumps and had built up the cushion that's allowed them to remain the seventh seed in the East despite earning just four points over the past ten games. John Tortorella was considered a candidate for coach of the year. They'd shown a real resiliency in games in which they fell behind. They looked to be a well-conditioned bunch, important in any number of situations during the long NHL season. And while some obvious holes remained — a true power-play quarterback, for instance — they'd established themselves as a pesky, hardworking bunch that would give some quality team fits during the first round.

Over the past few weeks, though, they've seen the wheels start to come off: Henrik Lundqvist hasn't been as sharp since the All-Star break, which at the very least means he hasn't been stealing them wins on nights they otherwise wouldn't deserve them. Scoring remains at a premium most nights, and now comes word that Marian Gaborik left yesterday's game with a concussion. For all the Callahans and Staals who've stepped up this season, those two remain as important to the Rangers as anyone on the roster. And while we're confident that Lundqvist will eventually return to form this season, we've never had more doubt about Gaborik.

Perhaps the Rangers' lost weekend was largely the product of scheduling that had them playing the red-hot Devils and the conference-leading Flyers in the span of three days. But whatever momentum they'd built with wins over Pittsburgh and Los Angeles is gone now. With 21 games remaining, they remain just two points ahead of Carolina, the team they'll face tomorrow night in Raleigh.

We're close to breaking out the panic button we had the art department whip up last year, even as we keep reminding ourselves that such a young team was bound to experience some growing pains. We're beginning to have faith that — given how the Rangers have been developing their homegrown players of late — Glen Sather might understand this, too, as the trade deadline approaches. And if nothing else, we're confident that while a certain owner might be meddling with his basketball team, he'll leave his hockey club to his hockey people.

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Photo: Chris Trotman/Getty Images