Well that was a big wrist shot by Marian Gaborik. The Rangers’ scoring machine beat the Islanders’ Evgeni Nabokov with just six seconds left in overtime for a 4-3 win that snapped the team’s three-game losing streak (and losses in four of its last five games).
But even if Gaborik’s shot had not found its way to the back of the net and the Rangers had fallen in a shootout, there would be little cause for concern about the Eastern Conference-leading Blueshirts. Why? I’m glad you asked.
1. Henrik Lundqvist. Not much more needs to be said here. A virtual shoo-in for the Vezina Trophy this year, Hank has a 1.88 goals against average (third in the league) and .935 save percentage (second in the league) despite allowing 13 goals in his last four starts. Against the Isles, Lundqvist stopped several point-blank shots in the third period and overtime and even on an off night was good enough to win. And as we saw with Tim Thomas last year, otherworldly goaltending trumps all come playoff time.
2. They’re still in first place. Going into Sunday, the Rangers had amassed just three points in their previous five games. Meanwhile, the Penguins have won nine in a row behind the Hart Trophy-level play of Evgeni Malkin. And yet the Blueshirts are still in first place in the Eastern Conference, four points ahead of the Pens. If the Rangers can hold off Pittsburgh and claim home-ice advantage in the East, they should be in excellent shape — New York has the best home record in the conference at 23-7-2.
3. They have Gaborik and Brad Richards. Not since Mark Messier and Adam Graves roamed the ice together in the mid-90s have the Rangers had a one-two offensive punch like Gaborik and Richards. Gaborik has cemented himself as a year-in, year-out scoring machine, currently fifth in the NHL with 33 goals. Though Richards got off to a slow start, the big center has 21 goals and 29 assists in 68 games and appears to rounding into form at the right time. Against the Isles, Richards had two power-play goals, including a coast-to-coast beauty where he wove through seemingly the entire Islander team and fired a wrist shot past Nabokov.
The two stars are also starting to gel together on the ice, particularly in power play situations. Gaborik had this to say in a post-game interview with MSG on Sunday:
Brad’s huge for us on power plays. We haven’t been very good at that this season but hopefully we can get it going from here.
4. The power play can only get better. To say the Rangers “haven’t been very good” on the man advantage is a dramatic understatement. New York has converted just 14.8% of power plays this season, third-worst in the NHL. That’s in 230 chances, which is 13th-most in the league. In other words, the team is leaving goals on the board with its putrid power play. But on Sunday, the Rangers were 3-for-6 on the man advantage, including the game-winner by Gaborik in OT. If the Blueshirts can bump up their PP conversion percentage, they can establish more of an offense to go along with their stingy defense.
5. They have young legs. The Rangers are filled with young, talented players. Captain Ryan Callahan is 26, Brandon Dubinsky’s 25, rookie Carl Hagelin’s 23, defenseman Michael Del Zotto is 21…you get the idea. Even Lundqvist and Gaborik have just recently turned 30 — at 31, Richards seems like an old man on this team. With a grueling postseason run a likely prerequisite to a Stanley Cup title — the Rangers are not blowing out a lot of teams come the playoffs — the team’s relative youth could pay huge dividends in the later rounds or a Game 7. Hopefully, we get to find out.