|The Rangers big-spending offseason gave them centers Scott Gomez and Chris Drury, and both provided scoring punch and veteran leadership.
Master chef Tom Renney was given the elements by General Manager Glen Sather, and while the early experiments weren’t successful, Renney finally found the right formula after the All-Star break, and the result is the treat of a third straight playoff berth for the New York Rangers.
To a veteran core of wingers like Jaromir Jagr, Brendan Shanahan, Sean Avery and Martin Straka, Sather felt the need to add something at the center position. So when the free-agent market opened July 1, Sather ran into the store like a shopper on Black Friday.
“We had them ranked both as the first picks as far as free agents was concerned," Sather said in announcing the twin signings. "But really, we didn't think we were going to get both of them. But the way it worked out, we got both of them."
But the first time Renney mixed the ingredients, the meal was a disaster, as the Rangers won just four times in their first 11 games. Gomez, imported to be the team’s top playmaker, had just one assist. His linemate, Jagr, had just two goals. Shanahan had just three goals, and Drury, the second-line center expected to bring grit and defensive tenacity, had one goal and was a minus-1.
While the offense wasn’t delivering, goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was showing why he’s known as “The King.”
When the Rangers climbed back into the playoff race in November, it was Lundqvist leading the way. He won nine of his 12 starts, and allowed two or fewer goals eight times, with a pair of shutouts.
While the goaltending carried the Rangers, Renney continued his mad-scientist routine, mixing and matching his lines in a quest to find that elusive chemistry.
Things improved in spurts. Gomez had a seven-game point streak in November that jump-started his season and earned him an All-Star berth, and Shanahan had four goals and five assists in 14 November contests as he rediscovered his game.
The big issue was finding someone to play with Jagr. The veteran captain had established great chemistry with Michael Nylander, but Nylander departed in the summer for Washington after the club signed Gomez and Drury. Jagr started on a line with Gomez, and when that didn’t work, Renney moved him onto a line with Drury, with similarly disappointing results. There was a bit of success when he tried Jagr with rookie Brandon Dubinsky for a short time, but nothing tasted right.
At the All-Star break, the Rangers sat last in the Atlantic Division and ninth in the Eastern Conference.
When the team regrouped after its three-day vacation, something changed. After muddling along in the first half of the season, Renney went from short-order cook to Emeril Lagasse as the Rangers won three of their first four games.
The Rangers seemed to have found a sure-fire recipe for success when they took the ice in Montreal on Feb. 19. The Rangers jumped to a 5-0 lead 25 minutes into the game, but then the Canadiens staged the largest rally in club history, tying the game in the third period and then winning in a shootout.
"We stopped playing," Shanahan told reporters after the game. "Tonight we sat back and stopped playing. … We had total control of this game."
An epic loss like that could have poisoned the Rangers’ season. Instead, things went entirely in the other direction, as wins in seven of the next eight games removed all vestiges of the disaster.
Drury emerged as an offensive contributor, scoring eight times in February and taking the team lead in goals – and, as befits his history, game-winning scores – as the Rangers pushed their way up the standings. Gomez led the team lead in assists and points, and Lundqvist, playing through his father’s illness as well as negotiations on a new six-year contract he signed mid-season, keyed an underrated defense.
Most surprising was a pair of rookie forwards thrown into the mix who became major contributors. Dubinsky flourished in a third-line center role, while Nigel Dawes made his biggest contributions in the shootout, scoring on four of his first six chances, including a pair of game-winners. And on a squad with proven veterans who have made careers of putting the puck into the net at the biggest moment, only Shanahan had more shootout goals.
While the early trials might not have been as tasty as hoped, eventually Renney found the right mixture and cooked up a delightful season.
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com.