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The Rangers at Mid-Season: Steady As She Goes

Last night’s Rangers victory over the Hurricanes marked the team’s 41st game of the year — the exact halfway point of the regular season. Their 23-15-3 record places them seventh in the East, a point behind the Thrashers, who have played two more games. However, they’re now seven points ahead of the ninth-place spot — the one they ended the season in last year. (They’re actually closer in points to first-place Pittsburgh than they are to ninth-place Carolina. Not to suggest they’re among the conference’s elite teams, but the middle of the playoff pack is a long way from where they ended last season.) So how did we get here? What’s worked, and what hasn’t, after the jump.

What’s Worked
Quite a bit, really. Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky found chemistry and skated on the team’s most consistent offensive line until Callahan got hurt. Meanwhile, Marc Staal and Dan Girardi have formed an effective shut-down defense pairing, one capable of slowing some of the league’s elite scorers. (It should be noted that all four of them, as well as a few other names that will be mentioned in this section, are home grown.) Brian Boyle has surpassed even the most optimistic of projections. (He’s already more than tripled his goal output from last season.) Martin Biron, who has allowed two goals or fewer in seven of his ten starts, has earned the trust of John Tortorella, which in turn should keep Henrik Lundqvist fresh in the second half. Rookies Derek Stepan and Michael Sauer both had solid starts to their careers. (Stepan’s 11 goals are tied for third-most on the team, while Sauer has been a quietly effective presence on the blue line.)

In more general terms, this is a team with an identity: a hard-working, well-conditioned bunch (more on that in a moment) — one that’s willing and able to forecheck and plays with just enough of a mean streak. And while Lundqvist and Marian Gaborik (more on him in a moment, too) are undoubtedly all-world players, the modest success of this year’s squad has been its ability to play as a team, getting contributions from a number of places, even as lines are constantly shuffled.

What Hasn’t Worked
Gaborik has yet to really find his scoring touch, and Tortorella has yet to find him linemates with whom he clicks for more than a couple games at a time. (Gaborik, who missed time with an injury, has just eleven goals at the halfway point — or 0.41 a game, down from last year’s 0.55 a game.) Speaking of potential Gaborik linemates: Alex Frolov, who started the season on Gaborik’s line, has thus far put up worse scoring numbers in his 2010–11 contract year than he did in his 2009–10 contract year. (He’s been invisible for much of the season, with one solid stretch in December in which he scored five points in five games, good for nearly a third of his points on the year.) Michael Del Zotto took a step back, first getting scratched from the lineup for the first time in his career, then landing on a bus to Hartford, where a Connecticut Whale jersey awaited.

Not that we didn’t know this entering the season, but the team lacks a true top-line center and still lacks the power-play quarterback they thought they were signing in Wade Redden. Speaking of issues at center: They’re 28th in the NHL in face-off percentage, having won just 45.7 percent of their draws. Only Todd White (who’s currently playing in the AHL) and Chris Drury (who’s bounced between center and wing) have won more than half their face-offs, among those who’ve taken at least 50 this year. Also, as Callahan (and, for that matter, Drury) can surely tell you, there’s an inherent danger to blocking as many shots as the Rangers do.

Five Encouraging Statistics
1. The Rangers are 16-0-0 when leading after two periods this year.
2. Better still, they’ve won four games when trailing after two periods, second only to Dallas’s five. To put that in perspective, the other four teams in the Atlantic Division have won just two such games all year, combined. Furthermore, the Rangers have eleven points in games they’ve trailed after two periods; the rest of the division, combined, has eight.
3. The Rangers have a 9–1 record in the second half of back-to-back games — yet more evidence that this team’s conditioning has made a huge difference.
4. With 2.90 goals per game, the Rangers rank ninth in the NHL in scoring — a welcome improvement from a year ago, when they averaged 2.67 and when, with good reason, we titled our mid-season report “The Rangers at Mid-Season: A One-Man Team.” (For the record, their team goals-against average is down a tick, from 2.61 to 2.51.)
5. As we already pointed out in Monday’s roller coaster/on-ramp analogy, this year’s squad hasn’t lost three straight games since the opening week of the season, but they’ve won three straight three times.

The Rangers at Mid-Season: Steady As She Goes