The last few years have been nailbiters for the Rangers as their hopes of making the playoffs went all the way to the last few games of the season before being settled.
That probably isn't going to be the case this season. They have the most points in the Eastern Conference at the All-Star break which gives them a 100 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to Sports Club Stats.
Not too shabby a way to start a season and that makes it fun to take one last look back at the first half of the season before fully turning our attention to the stretch run to come after the fun and games in Ottawa this weekend. That's how we'll do things here as we take stock of the Rangers at the break while also thinking about the places where they remain vulnerable.
MVP: There are a few other candidates, but making a case for anyone that's more compelling than the case for Henrik Lundqvist is awfully difficult. Whatever else happens on the ice during a game, the Rangers don't have much chance of winning if the King isn't doing his thing in the net.
Thankfully, he's had just a few nights where he hasn't been at his best this season and, to this point, this has been the best season of his career. The occasional bad goals have disappeared and, thanks to Martin Biron's presence, he has been rested enough to stay sharp for the distance.
Biggest Surprise: Dan Girardi was a solid defenseman for the Rangers coming into the season, the kind of player you need on your roster but not one that generated many headlines. So it was a surprise to see him turn in the kind of first half that looked a lot like that of a Norris Trophy candidate.
Girardi logs heavy minutes, blocks shots like he gets a bonus every time he picks up a bruise and kept the team from missing a beat while Marc Staal was out of the lineup. It was a big step up in play and role by Girardi, and one that made a big difference.
Biggest Disappointment: It's tempting to tab Brad Richards, especially since the power play remains a nightmare, but Richards has done enough other things well to make up for his lower-than-expected scoring. So we'll go with Artem Anisimov, who seemed like he would step forward this season but has moved in the other direction and might not be long for this team.
Most Improved: Derek Stepan has made strides, but this one's gotta go to Michael Del Zotto after last year's trip to the minors led to serious questions about his future with the Rangers. His play in his own end remains less than perfect, but his ability to add something to the attack comes in handy for a team that remains scoring challenged.
Two Guys Who Don't Really Fit Anywhere Else: You can't discuss the Rangers success without talking about Ryan Callahan and Marian Gaborik, so we'll wedge them in here because they don't really fit elsewhere. Gaborik has bounced back from a disappointing season with his goal-scoring touch intact and Callahan does everything you want from a captain on the ice.
Best Game: Given all of the buildup, how could it be anything other than the Winter Classic? The HBO show built it up to epic proportions and, thanks to a comeback from 2-0 down and Lundqvist's penalty shot save in the last minute, it lived up to them.
Biggest Concern: Keeping the puck out of the net shouldn't be a problem, but putting it in the net remains an issue for the team. It would be nice to see Brandon Dubinsky and Brian Boyle get themselves on track, because it would limit the need to go outside the organization for an answer the team has to have to extend this season deep into the playoffs.
Looking Ahead to the Trade Deadline: A scoring forward is certainly something the team will be looking for, but the reason why it would be nice to get some help in-house is because they also need to think about the defense. Injuries have been an issue all season and it would be nice to find a way to both upgrade the unit while also cutting some of the minutes Girardi and Stall play to keep them fresh for the postseason.
The issues with a deal for Shea Weber or another big talent is what it will cost the Rangers now, as opposed to as a free agent, and whether it will significantly move the needle for the team's chances of winning the Cup. The defensive upgrade isn't a screaming need, while getting a big scorer would certainly wind up taking away some of the players whose efforts have been crucial to the strong play so far this season.
It's a tough equation to figure out, but a nice one. Teams without reason to think about Stanley Cups don't have these problems, something the Rangers know all to well from recent history.