For a group that has accomplished much during its time, the New York Rangers found themselves in an odd position: Engaged in deep-seeded self-evaluation.
“A lot of our conversations we had today were focused on our last ten games. We have a ten game season, essentially,” Derek Stepan said after the Rangers halted their two game slide by topping the Florida Panthers, 4-2, Monday night at the Garden.
With the win, the Rangers cracked the 90 point barrier. The 2015-16 season marks the ninth time in 11 seasons the Rangers have earned 90 points.
The win, coupled with the Penguins being idle, means the Rangers passed Pittsburgh for second place in the Metropolitan Division. The Penguins, who are 8-2-0 in their last 10 games—including having won six straight—do have a game in hand.
Still, those are irrelevant blemishes, compared to the bigger picture. Following a California trip in which the Rangers dropped two of three, the questions asked about the 2015-16 Rangers were about their collective makeup, their will, their outlook.
Because the expectation for the current edition is to compete once more for the Stanley Cup.
“I think what we have to do is put 60 minutes of hockey together each night and give ourselves the best chance to get two points,” Stepan said. “We need as many points as we can get at this point in the year and that’s what we’re focused on. I think our group did a good job getting the right focus going into tonight.”
Focus has been a season-long topic around the Rangers. In October and November, the Rangers won games due to a potent offense and the play of Henrik Lundqvist. Following a defeat to the Montreal Canadiens on Nov. 25, though, opponents took advantage of the Rangers’ flaws for six weeks.
While the Rangers had improved their play in the calendar year 2016, the questions about the team arose after losses in Los Angeles and San Jose last week. The loss to the Sharks was especially galling as the Rangers were unable to implement any aspect of their game.
So the win against a young, talented playoff squad in the Panthers was a needed tonic.
“It was great to see the way we responded as a group after [the loss in San Jose],” Lundqvist said. “It also shows how much focus to details, determination, how much it can change the look out there. Going from [San Jose] to this game, it’s like two different teams sometimes. Also what matters obviously is who you are playing. It felt like Florida was sitting back a little bit and you could feel they had a push in the last five [minutes] in the second and in the third they were a lot stronger. It’s just a great feeling to find a way to win this one.
“I think it’s important that you don’t force anything. If the play is there you make it, otherwise you try to keep it simple. A lot of teams today they are so fast in the transition game and if you lose the puck in the wrong area, it’s going to hurt you a little bit. Sometimes you have to go for the safe play, maybe the boring play sometimes, but it’s going to help you in the long run. But when the play is there, when it is open in the middle, you go for it. I think we made good decisions tonight and that was the big difference.”
Across the dressing room, Stepan echoed Lundqvist.
“We talk about working smart and that’s something that going forward is a big key for our group. I don’t think there’s ever been a question of work ethic in here,” Stepan said. “I think it’s at times working the right way and working the smart way. Those are big things in playoff hockey and in these last 10 games.”
You can follow NHL writer Denis P. Gorman on Twitter at @DenisGorman