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.)

Marjory Stoneman Douglas hockey team wins state championship

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The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School varsity hockey team can now call themselves state champions, 11 days after a gunman killed 17 and injured 14 others on the Parkland, Florida campus.

Their 7-4 victory over Jesuit High School capped off a Sunday that saw them upset top-seeded East Lake High School 3-1 in the semifinals. Stoneman Douglas lost to both teams in the round-robin phase of the tournament on Saturday. Their three losses in the early stage put them as the lowest-seeded team heading into the elimination games of the Statewide Amateur Hockey of Florida High School State Championship tournament held at Germain Arena in Estero, Florida.

According to NBC2’s Joe Putrelo, some Stoneman Douglas players dyed their hair yellow to honor a friend of the team, Joaquin Oliver, who died in the shooting.

The state title now means that Stoneman Douglas will take part in the high school hockey national championship tournament next month in Minnesota.

“We came into the game knowing we had to give it our all to get the win and that’s what we did, and now we get to bring the trophy back to the best high school in America,” said forward Joey Zenobi.

MORE: Panthers’ Luongo gives emotional speech about Florida school shooting

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Datsyuk: Olympic gold medal means more than Stanley Cup

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Seconds after the Russians won their first Olympic hockey gold medal since 1992, Pavel Datsyuk couldn’t contain his joy at what he considers the peak of his career.

Even though Datsyuk won the Stanley Cup with the Detroit Red Wings in 2002 and 2008, the 39-year-old said capturing gold at the Olympics in his fifth try was his greatest accomplishment, even in a tournament without NHL players and even when called “Team Olympic Athlete From Russia” because of sanctions over state-sponsored doping.

“When you play for your country and I win this medal, this special time, it’s more important,” Datsyuk said. “I have accomplished my dream. Now I have no dream.”

Datsyuk, who took home a bronze medal in Salt Lake City in 2002, had six assists to help the Russians capture Pyeongchang gold as captain and one of their best players.

“There are a lot of nice feelings now in my heart, but at the same time I can’t believe it yet.”

Datsyuk went home to Russia in the summer of 2016 citing family reasons after putting up 314 goals and 604 assists for 918 points in 953 regular-season games over 14 seasons with the Red Wings. Datsyuk, who was the oldest men’s hockey player in the Olympics, still hasn’t decided whether to retire after this season.

He accomplished his dream with the help of Ilya Kovalchuk, who went back to Russia to play in the Kontinental Hockey League despite being just three seasons into a $100 million, 15-year contract with the New Jersey Devils. Kovalchuk had five goals and two assists and was voted tournament MVP.

Kovalchuk and Nikita Gusev, who led Russia and the tournament with 12 points including two goals in the gold-medal game, were great. Datsyuk was Russia’s captain and leader.

“Our hearts almost stopped beating,” Datsyuk said of the back-and-forth final, “but we recovered and the team showed character.”

Pro Hockey Talk 2018 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker

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The PHT NHL Trade Deadline Tracker is your one-stop shop for completed deals as the Feb. 26, 3 p.m. ET deadline approaches.

Feb. 25 – Nashville Predators acquire Brandon Bollig and Troy Grosenick from the San Jose Sharks for 2018 sixth-round pick.

Feb. 25 – Nashville Predators acquire Mark Letestu from the Edmonton Oilers for Pontus Aberg. Predators then trade Letestu to the Columbus Blue Jackets for a fourth-round pick in the 2018 NHL Draft. | PHT analysis

Feb. 25 – The Toronto Maple Leafs acquire Tomas Plekanec* and Kyle Baun from the Montreal Canadiens for Rinat Valiev, Kerby Rychel and Toronto’s second-round draft pick in 2018. (*The Canadiens will retain 50 percent of Plekanec’s salary.) | PHT analysis

Feb. 25 – The Boston Bruins acquire Rick Nash* from the New York Rangers for a 2018 first-round pick, a 2019 seventh-round pick, Matt Beleskey*, Ryan Spooner and the rights to Ryan Lindgren. (*The Rangers will retain 50 percent of Nash’s salary, while the Bruins are retaining half of Beleskey’s salary.) | PHT analysis

Feb. 24 New York Islanders acquire Brandon Davidson from the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for a 2019 third-round draft pick. | PHT analysis

Feb. 23 – Vegas Golden Knights acquire Ryan Reaves and a 2018 fourth-round pick; Pittsburgh Penguins acquire Derick Brassard, Vincent Dunn, Tobias Lindberg and a 2018 third-round pick; Ottawa Senators acquire Ian Cole, Filip Gustavsson, a 2018 first-round pick and a 2019 third-round pick. | PHT analysis

Feb. 22 – New Jersey Devils acquire Michael Grabner from New York Rangers for 2018 second-round pick and Yegor Rykov. | PHT analysis

Feb. 22 – Florida Panthers acquire Frank Vatrano from Boston Bruins for 2018 third-round pick. | PHT analysis

Feb. 21 – Washington Capitals acquire Jakub Jerabek from Montreal Canadiens for a 2019 fifth-round pick.

Feb. 21 – Los Angeles Kings acquire Tobias Rieder* and Scott Wedgewood from Arizona Coyotes for Darcy Kuemper. (*Arizona retains 15 percent of Rieder’s salary.) | PHT analysis

Feb. 20 – Boston Bruins acquire Nick Holden from New York Rangers for Rob O’Gara and a 2018 third-round pick. | PHT analysis

Feb. 20 – San Jose Sharks acquire Eric Fehr from Toronto Maple Leafs for 2020 seventh-round pick.

Feb. 19 – Washington Capitals acquire Michal Kempny from Chicago Blackhawks for a conditional* 2018 third-round pick. (*Chicago will receive the higher of Washington’s own third-round draft choice or the third-round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Washington acquired the Toronto draft pick from the New Jersey Devils as part of the Marcus Johansson trade on July 2, 2017.) | PHT analysis

Feb. 19 – Philadelphia Flyers acquire Petr Mrazek* from Detroit Red Wings for a conditional* 2nd round pick in 2018 or a 3rd round pick in 2018 or a 4th round pick in 2018 and a conditional* 3rd round pick in 2019 (*Red Wings retain half of Mrazek’s salary. *The 2018 fourth-round pick turns into a third-round pick if the Flyers make the playoffs and Mrazek wins five games during the regular season. That pick will become a second rounder if the Flyers win two playoff rounds and Mrazek wins six games. The 2019 third rounder becomes Red Wings property if Mrazek signs with the Flyers.) | PHT analysis

Feb. 15 – Chicago Blackhawks acquire Chris DiDomenico from Ottawa Senators for Ville Pokka.

Feb. 15 – St. Louis Blues acquire Nikita Soshnikov from Toronto Maple Leafs for 2019 fourth-round pick.

Feb. 13 – Los Angeles Kings acquire Dion Phaneuf*, Nate Thompson from Ottawa Senators for Marian Gaborik and Nick Shore. (*Senators retain 25 percent of Phaneuf’s salary.) | PHT analysis

Rinne, Predators hand Blues their sixth straight loss in 4-0 win

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The thought of the St. Louis Blues missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs a couple months ago would have been brushed fiercely, and with good reason.

Even with a packed infirmary, the Blues managed to hang with the big boys atop the Central Division, a testament to their depth. Everything was pretty much status quo, what we’ve come to expect from the Blues as a perennial playoff team with lots of talent.

And then the wheels fell off.

The Blues lost their sixth straight game on Sunday, a 4-0 defeat to a Nashville Predators team that they previously shared a table with in the NHL’s toughest division.

Now, the Blues are now fighting for a playoff spot. They sit a point behind the Anaheim Ducks for the second wildcard spot in the Western Conference and two points back of the Minnesota Wild for third in the Central Division.

The Blues are now 0-5-1 in their past six and have scored two goals or fewer in seven of their past 10 games, including being shutout twice. The once-reliable scoring well has dried up. St. Louis was shutout 4-0 on Friday night against Winnipeg in an embarrassing effort. Sunday’s wasn’t much different.

Nashville, meanwhile, continues to cruise and regained sole possession of top spot in the Central Division, two points ahead of the Winnipeg Jets with a game in hand.

The win also put the Predators a point behind the Vegas Golden Knights for tops in the Western Conference and two points behind the Tampa Bay Lightning at the summit in the NHL.

Along with Sissons’ goal, Kevin Fiala notched his 20th to five the Preds a 2-0 lead at the first intermission.

Everything went right for the Preds, even when they were shorthanded.

Watson’s shorty made it 4-0 after Scott Hartnell gave Nashville a 3-0 lead 1:20 into the second period.

That nice orange-red circle in front of Jake Allen is pretty telling.

Pekka Rinne, meanwhile, was solid in the crease for the Predators, picking up his sixth shutout of the season and 49th of career in a 27-save performance.

The Predators, who have now won four straight, get their stiffest challenge yet against the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday. On the line is first place in the division, a spot both teams will likely duke out for heading down the home stretch.

MORE: Pro Hockey Talk 2018 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck