With 66 points in just 47 games, the New York Rangers are the team to beat in the NHL. Their 12 losses in regulation are the least in the NHL, and their 7-3 record in their last ten games heading into the break is the best in the Eastern Conference.
What makes the Rangers such an elite team in the NHL is their superb defense and goaltending. Even with all-star Marc Staal out for the majority of the season, the Rangers have given up the least goals in the NHL. Dan Girardi has done a fantastic job filling in for Staal on the first defensive pairing, and is averaging the most ice time in the NHL, with a little more than 27 minutes a game. Girardi never seems to get tired though and is one of the most efficient players in the NHL, always blocking shots, delivering hits, or applying pressure to wingers.
Along with Girardi, Michael Del Zotto and Ryan McDonagh have also been excellent for the Rangers on defense this season.
When the Rangers brought in Brad Richards during free agency, many assumed he would become the new star of the team. Well, those assumptions were wrong, because the star of the New York Rangers is still Henrik Lundqvist. King Henrik has had a spectacular season so far, and should finally win his first, long overdue Vezina Trophy.
Henk's 22 wins, .937 save %, and 1.87 goals against average rank in the top five among all goalies in the NHL. A huge reason the defense has received credit this season is because Lundqvist is always there to back them up.
For the last few seasons though, defense and goaltending have been strengths of the Rangers. Offense has been the biggest problem for the Rangers. Last season, the Rangers got an early boot from the playoffs because they couldn't put the pucks in the net. In his second season with the Rangers, Marian Gaborik's play regressed a lot, and he only finished with 22 goals. This season in just 47 games, Gaborik already has 25, which ranks in the top five across the league.
Besides injuries, why has Gaborik returned to his typical all-star play?
Brad Richards. Richards has revived this offense, and is creating so many goal scoring opportunities for his teammates. Last year, Gaborik struggled as the playmaker, since he's naturally a sniper. With Richards as the facilitator though, Gaborik can return to his aggressive role as a goal scorer. Perfect example of the two working together is the game winning powerplay goal to beat the Bruins last Saturday.
And how about giving some credit to John Tortorella?
As shown on 24/7 Road to the NHL Winter Classic, "Torts" is the most straightforward coach in the league. If a player sucked after a bad game, Tortorella would be the first to let them know it, but if a player had a good game, Torts would let them know that as well. Tortorella has to be a candidate for the Jack Adams Award this season. His ability to create well balanced lines, send his team strong messages, and have a good relationship with every player are among his best traits as a coach.
Besides the big name guys though, players like Carl Hagelin, Mike Rupp, and Derek Stepan all deserve recognition.
Hagelin, a rookie out of Michigan, is already becoming an offensive threat for the Rangers. Hagelin was recently named along with 11 other rookies to participate this weekend in a few NHL All-Star events.
Along with Hagelin, Derek Stepan has really exploded this season. Stepan leads the team in assist, and his 31 points this season are the fourth most on the team.
And finally, Rupper. Looking at his stats, Rupp is nowhere near the top of the list, but it's his skills that aren't on the stat sheet; hustle, chemistry, hard work, and being an enforcer, that make him a Rangers favorite.
The reason the Rangers will be a Stanley Cup contender this year is because they are so well rounded, so complete. Their offense complements their defense, which reflects back on Lundqvist. They have great chemistry, and have had great success this season against other top teams. It's not a stretch to call this year's team the best team since 1994, the year Mark Messier hoisted Lord Stanley's Cup.