The book on the Rangers during Glen Sather's tenure as the man on top is that they are well-paid underachievers who never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
What do we make of this year's team, then? They've played long stretches of the season without each of their three top forwards and sniper Marian Gaborik has struggled to find ways to score goals when healthy. Vinny Prospal, last year's second-leading scorer, hasn't played at all and the team's biggest offseason acquitision, Alex Frolov, was a flop who is now injured. Michael Del Zotto has regressed from his rookie season and it seems like some player is helped off the nice every single night.
Sounds like a classic Rangers disappointment, one that would actually be easy to explain away because of bad luck. But these Rangers don't share the same DNA as their forbears, as evidenced by their winning records during Gaborik's 14-game absence and Ryan Callahan's 19 games on the sideline. They've reached the All-Star break as the fifth-best team in the Eastern Conference despite the fact that they have fewer household names than your average high school bowling team. The lack of big names, combined with the Jets' playoff run and the resurgent Knicks, is probably why some of you are surprised by that lofty position in the standings.
Now would be a good time to start paying attention, however. Not just because February is barren when it comes to local sports action, but because the Rangers are about to get a bunch of talent back to a team that's grown by leaps and bounds because of the way they've been forced to step into bigger roles. Callahan and Prospal are off the disabled list and Brandon Dubinsky shouldn't be far behind as the team will now have a problem with too many good forwards to write into the lineup every night.
If that's not enough, check out Mats Zuccarello. Also (better?) known as the Norweigian Hobbit, Zuccarello has arrived from the minors with a sharp touch in the shootout and offensive skill to help cover some holes. His arrival and the need to capitalize on his skills exacerbates the coming logjam up front, but there are worse problems to have with the trade deadline approaching. As nice as all the grinding has been, the Rangers could use a few more goals and probably have the pieces to get them.
And we've come all this way without mentioning the best reason to keep your eyes on the ice. Henrik Lundqvist remains one of the best goaltenders in the league, aided greatly by the arrival of Mathieu Biron as a backup capable of giving him rest. Lundqvist is the kind of horse you can ride to playoff wins, especially when he's got a team in front of him that's proven capable of doing whatever is necessary on a given night.
For the first time in a long time, the Rangers have that kind of a team. Now we all just need to make a point of watching them.