It was a few minutes after the Rangers first half had come to an end, and Alain Vigneault stood behind the podium on the fifth floor of Madison Square Garden to address the state of his team.
Mere hours after he had uncharacteristically ripped his team to reporters in Ottawa following a ghastly performance, Vigneault stressed positives.
“We have shown more consistency,” Vigneault said after the 6-3 win over Buffalo on Jan. 25. “If you look at the way we have been playing 5-on-5 we are definitely getting better. We need to spend time on our specialty teams and like I said last week, we need to be better on the road. We know that, but I do believe this group is on the right track here.”
The Rangers enter the second half stretch run with a 27-17-5 record and in second place in the Metropolitan Division. In theory, that would be a positive.
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But the 2015-16 Rangers have been a question wrapped in an enigma. The Rangers began the season with a 16-3-2 record in the first seven weeks, before stumbling to the All-Star Break with a 11-14-3 mark. Included in that 28 game span were distressing losses to NHL-best Washington on Dec. 20 and to the Senators in Ottawa on Jan. 24.
“We talked about wanting to feel good about our game going into the break and to do that we needed the two points,” Henrik Lundqvist said after the win over the Sabres. “I think we’ve been playing a lot better lately. We didn’t get the win yesterday but I thought our performance was a lot better and our determination was right on tonight.”
As the Rangers reconvene from a short vacation—with the exception of Ryan McDonagh, who represented the franchise in Nashville at the NHL All-Star Weekend—Metro New York took a look back at the first half and what to pay attention to in the season’s final 33 games.
Without further ado:
The 16-3-2 start to the season. The Rangers were scoring goals and Henrik Lundqvist was being mentioned as an extremely early season MVP candidate.
''Look around the league and you see guys putting up huge offensive numbers, playing great hockey,” Derek Stepan told reporters about Lundqvist after the Rangers’ 3-0 win over Nashville at the Garden on Nov. 23. Lundqvist made 31 saves in the win. “It's no different (than) what (Lundqvist) is doing for our team. We've played some good hockey (and) at times we had (Lundqvist) play some good hockey for us.''
It would be easy to pick the myriad losses between Nov. 25 and Dec. 28 as rock bottom for the 2015-16 Rangers. But the 3-0 loss in Ottawa on Jan. 24 might have been the Rangers worst performance of the season. And it left Vigneault steaming.
“Every time we think we’re building a little bit of momentum we came up with one of these,” Vigneault told reporters, according to The Record. “Other than (Henrik Lundqvist) and (Jesper Fast), we had so many guys that were off their game it was unbelievable. We were on the outside the whole night. Just didn’t have a good game at all,” “I thought before the game, if you would have asked me if this group was ready to come out and execute and play hard, I would have said without a doubt. We came out and turned it over three times and gave them Grade A scoring chances right down the middle. It’s tough to understand. I keep saying it to the players, it’s a competitive league, there’s not much separating teams. If you don’t come out and execute and play on top of your game, you get what we got tonight, you get blown out 3-0.
“Nobody likes to lose but I really thought we were building momentum,” he said. “We played a real strong game in Carolina on the road. I thought we were getting somewhere and then we come up with this tonight So, thanks, I’m out of here.”
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
Tie between Henrik Lundqvist and Mats Zuccarello. Where would the Rangers be without the franchise stalwart netminder and arguably their most indispensable skater? Likely not in playoff contention. Both carried the Rangers in the first 20 games of the season, and have been the team’s most consistent players.
LEAST VALUABLE PLAYER
Tie between Dan Girard and Marc Staal. The two veteran defensemen have struggled significantly this season, leading to pointed criticism from fans. Both have no-move and no-trade clauses written into their long-term deals, making it problematic for general manager Jeff Gorton to trade one or both.
Keith Yandle. The puck mover is in the last year of a five-year, $26.250 million deal he signed with Arizona, and the Rangers are only on the hook for $2.625 million. But the Rangers have to find money for RFAs Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes, J.T. Miller, Dylan McIlrath, and UFAs Dominic Moore and Antti Raanta. Plus, even though Yandle is third on the team in power play time—116:50—does the organization feel comfortable paying at least $6 million per for a defenseman who has played 2:11 shorthanded in 49 games?
Let’s be honest. The Washington Capitals are going to win the Metropolitan Division. As of this writing, Washington has a 15-point lead over the Rangers for first in the Metro.
The Rangers have a three point lead over the third place Islanders in the division, with the Penguins (55 points), Devils (55 points) Hurricanes (54 points) and Flyers (50 points) still in closing distance.
But the question Gorton, Vigneault and the rest of the hockey operations department must ask and answer is whether the current edition is a Cup contender, or a group that could use an infusion of youth for the future.
By no means is a playoff berth a guarantee, and a Cup run seems unlikely.