A new kind of Rangers team thriving

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The New York Rangers current 4-game winning streak has them sitting in the 7th spot with 82 points going into tonight’s game against the Florida Panthers. Tonight they’ll have the opportunity to either gain on the 6th place Canadiens or pull further away from the 8th place Sabres (depending on the result of the Sabres/Habs game). Whether they are able to gain ground on the Habs or increase their lead on the Sabres, the most important thing is the recent streak has created a little separation between them and the 9th place Carolina Hurricanes.

This year’s version of the Rangers is marking a change from the past. In the years leading up to the salary cap – and even a few years after the implementation of the cap – the Rangers were the poster team for over-indulgence on players who were past their prime. Players from Wade Redden to Jaromir Jagr and from Chris Drury to Scott Gomez all knew there was the team on Broadway that would be willing to freely spend for a player whose best years were probably behind them. They were assembling a fantasy roster—unfortunately it was usually the fantasy roster that looked great if it were from two years ago.

The Rangers were the team that was quick to make a splash at the deadline. They’d throw caution (as well as prospects and draft picks) to the wind in hopes of finding that one last player who would be the savior. But over the last year or so, Glen Sather has been singing a different tune. He’s repeatedly stated to anyone who would listen that he was going to stick with the young guys. His plan was to keep the young players and prospects they’d acquired instead of trading them away for a 3-month quick fix. Judging by the organization’s unwillingness to sell the farm for Brad Richards at the deadline, it looks like it might be more than just the usual lip service.

The team now has young players like Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky that every team in the league would love to build around. They have young blueliners like Marc Staal, Ryan McDonagh, Michael Sauer, and Michael Del Zotto who look like they could be a very good corps of defensemen. They have prospects like Artem Anisimov and Derek Stepan who are coming into their own at the NHL level. Earlier this week, they were able to sign two of their most promising prospects in Ryan Bourque and Dylan McIlrath; who should go well with high-end offensive prospects Christian Thomas and Chris Kreider once they sign with the organization. Simply put, they have players all over the organization who should be productive guys on the roster for years to come.

Not only are the Rangers holding onto the young players, they’re starting to see a different type of player star on Broadway. It’s not the high-priced superstar who is unwilling to do what it takes to win. Now, there are guys like Ryan Callahan who have the sandpaper and heart needed to win. Callahan sees the difference as well:

“[re: Rangers 5-2 victory vs. Pittsburgh] It would have been pretty easy to get down on ourselves and hang our heads after letting up that goal on the power play, but to our credit we showed a lot of character to come back. All year we’ve been fighting in these one-goal games and dogfights in the third period, so we’re used to it and just go out there and do what we have to do.”

In the past, these are exactly the guys who would be sent with a draft pick for the 2nd line rental at the deadline. They are the guys who wouldn’t get a chance to play big roles on the team because they were sitting behind a guy who was brought in (to great fanfare) only to slow the development process of a player struggling to reach his potential. The salary cap has forced it, but New Yorkers are starting to see the benefits of good drafting. More importantly, they’re seeing the fruits of holding onto draft picks and prospects instead of trading them a short-term fix.

If the Rangers are going to be successful this season, it’s going to be these young players who lead the way. The intensity at the end of the regular season and the playoffs always increases about 17 levels – and for the first time in a long time, it looks like the Rangers have the type of players who can handle it. Better yet, they have the type of players who will thrive on it. Their current winning streak is the first time they’ve won four straight in over two years. They couldn’t have picked a better time.

(Update for tonight’s game vs. Florida: Marc Staal will miss his second consecutive game with his mysterious injury.)

Eddie Lack expects to be released from hospital on Monday night

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As scary as the situation was for Carolina Hurricanes goalie Eddie Lack, the good news continues to pour in.

First, the Hurricanes provided an update that he had “full feeling in his extremities” while under observation at a hospital. This followed the promising sign that he was able to give a “thumbs up” gesture while being taken off the ice on a stretcher after the Hurricanes’ 4-3 overtime loss to the Detroit Red Wings.

The best news came late on Monday night, however, as Lack himself tweeted that he expects to head back home as early as this late evening/early morning:

That’s fantastic news. Video of that scary collision with Andreas Athanasiou can be seen in the video above this post’s headline.

Blues, Flames take care of business (Islanders … do not)

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For a while there, it seemed like the idle Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs would be Monday’s “winners.” That changed when the Carolina Hurricanes salvaged a standings point and the Tampa Bay Lightning stormed back to beat the Blackhawks.

Still, there were some teams who came through (beyond the Lightning) and those who fell flat, so let’s cover some of the results in short.

West teams get it done

Unlike their counterparts out East, West teams jockeying for position avoided “unforced errors” in losing to non-playoff teams.

The St. Louis Blues beat the Arizona Coyotes 4-1 while the Calgary Flames topped the Colorado Avalanche 4-2. Johnny Gaudreau generated his 200th point (and 201st) in Calgary’s win, while Alex Steen generated four assists. (Vladimir Tarasenko also enjoyed a three-point night.)

This keeps the Blues and Flames in position to advance. St. Louis is one point behind the Nashville Predators for third in the Central while the Flames are a point behind both the Sharks and Oilers for second and third in the Pacific (while remaining in shouting distance of the division title).

East teams stumble, some get over it

Again, the Lightning fought through hurdles to win and the Hurricanes managed that “charity point.”

Overall, East teams struggled. The New York Islanders fell to the Predators by a score of 3-1. Your mileage may vary on the Florida Panthers’ chances, especially after they fell 4-2 to the Buffalo Sabres.

Brian Gionta scored in his 1,000th game as Buffalo won, by the way.

Here’s what the race for the final spot in the East looks like after tonight:

Final wild card: Bruins – 84 points in 75 games played

Lightning – 83 points in 75 GP
Islanders – 82 points in 75 GP
Hurricanes – 80 points in 74 GP

Victor Hedman might just force his way into the Norris argument

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For quite some time this season, the Norris Trophy race felt a bit like “Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson and [insert token finalist].” As it turns out, Victor Hedman is making it a pretty interesting three-horse race.

With Burns and Karlsson idle on Monday, Hedman continued to go on the best offensive tear of his already-impressive career, contributing three assists to the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 5-4 overtime win against the Chicago Blackhawks.

As much credit as forwards Nikita Kucherov and Jonathan Drouin deserve in pushing Tampa Bay in Steven Stamkos‘ absence, Hedman has been an all-world blueliner for a Lightning team with a defense that isn’t really surrounding him with great talent.

He’s serving as a workhorse when his team needs him the most:

Now, when you look at the numbers, it’s probably fair to say that Hedman comes in third among the likely finalists in simple categories:

Brent Burns: 27 goals (!), 72 points in 75 games, +16 rating, 24:52 time-on-ice average

Erik Karlsson: 14 goals, 67 points in 74 games, +7, 26:53 minutes per game (fourth highest average in the NHL)

Victor Hedman: 15 goals, 65 points in 72 games, +2 rating, came into Monday with average of 24:15 minutes per game.

Looking at those breakdowns, you might wonder why someone wouldn’t just flippantly hand Hedman the “bronze medal” and a pat on the back … but things get more interesting if you ponder the all-around impact of those three.

Now, traditional-thinkers who slam risky defensemen for their mistakes often overstate such arguments. Both Burns and Karlsson tilt the ice in their teams’ favors, usually to profound degrees.

Still … Hedman locks opponents down to a truly elite degree and scores at a similar rate. Hedman could very well own the “two-way” argument; you could perhaps see his case most clearly when you compare his “HERO” chart to those of Burns and Karlsson, especially from the perspective of conceding shots.

Again, Burns remains the likely winner, and he would be a deserving one. You could make a solid Hart Trophy argument for Burns, in addition to tabbing him as the Norris frontrunner.

Even so, voters would be wise to take Hedman’s case seriously, especially as the Lightning continue their improbable playoff push.

Lightning storm back against Blackhawks, finish one point out of playoffs

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Who would have thought that the Tampa Bay Lightning would rally back from a 4-1 deficit tonight? Then again, who expected them to be so close to a playoff spot mere weeks ago, when they were sellers at the trade deadline?

The Lightning continue to show that they won’t just roll over and die, scoring four unanswered goals to beat the Chicago Blackhawks 5-4 in overtime on Monday.

While Jonathan Drouin was a catalyst for the second-period rally, it was an unlikely scorer who clinched the victory, as Yanni Gourde ended a thrilling run of 3-on-3 chances with the overtime-winner.

Really, it might have been fitting. Things looked glum when Tomas Jurco scored his first goal of the season against the Lightning, then the mood was totally flipped when Gourde’s second tally of 2016-17 grabbed a huge win.

With the Islanders losing to the Predators, the Hurricanes only managing a “loser point” against the Red Wings and the Bruins idle, Tampa Bay is a breath away from a playoff berth:

Final wild card: Bruins – 84 points in 75 games played

Lightning – 83 points in 75 GP
Islanders – 82 points in 75 GP
Hurricanes – 80 points in 74 GP

Yes, all of a sudden, a long-shot postseason run seems quite attainable.

Maybe the Lightning would prefer it if we kept counting them out, though?