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Eight reasons the Rangers are No. 1 in the League

by Dave Lozo
Two seasons ago, the New York Rangers weren't good enough to make the playoffs. Last season, they needed a loss by the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 82 to sneak into the postseason as the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference.

So what has propelled the Rangers into the League's top spot in the standings this season?

There haven't been any glaring weaknesses on the club through 38 games, but there have been a lot of things going right for them. Here are eight reasons why the Rangers have compiled more points than any team in the NHL:

1. Depth has made blue-line injuries irrelevant

Defenseman Marc Staal, the Rangers' leader in ice time the past two seasons, missed the first 36 games of the season with a concussion. Michael Sauer, a fixture on the team's second defense pairing, has missed the last 14 games, also with a concussion. Steve Eminger, another regular, has missed the last eight games.

Thanks to the emergence of Michael Del Zotto, a pair of cast-offs from other teams and a rookie, the Rangers have the second-best defense in the NHL.

Michael Del Zotto
Defense - NYR
GOALS: 5 | ASST: 18 | PTS: 23
SOG: 56 | +/-: 25
Del Zotto rebounded from a nightmare second season to post Norris Trophy-type numbers so far in 2011-12. He's 13th in points among NHL blueliners and his plus-25 is tied for the League lead among defensemen with Boston's Zdeno Chara. With Ryan McDonagh moving up to take Staal's spot on the top pairing with Dan Girardi, it left an opening on the second pairing that Del Zotto has filled admirably.

Coach John Tortorella admitted to not liking Anton Stralman when the Rangers signed him in November, but he's worked his way up to the second pairing, and has 1 goal, 5 assists and a plus-11 rating in 15 games. Stralman has played at least 22 minutes in five of the past seven games.

Jeff Woywitka was claimed off waivers from Montreal in October and has provided a steady presence on the back end of the defense corps. He's played 26 games and is a plus-2 with 6 points.

Even 25-year-old Stu Bickel has made an impact. He got his chance thanks to Eminger's injury and has 4 assists in eight games while providing a physical presence.

Of course, Girardi has played All-Star-level defense in Staal's absence. He leads in the NHL in time on ice while tasked with matching up against the opposition's top scorers.

With Staal back in the lineup, it's possible the Rangers' defense can get even better in the second half.

2. Henrik Lundqvist is better than ever

The 29-year-old arguably is the best goaltender in the League and a three time Vezina Trophy finalist, yet at times, it seems as though he gets overlooked.


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He's 17-7-4 with a 1.92 goals-against average and .937 save percentage, putting him on a pace for career bests in the latter two categories. As good as the revamped blue line has been, it's helped to have Lundqvist masking any flaws when things break down.

But it's not just Lundqvist -- Martin Biron is on pace to make the most starts by any Rangers backup since Lundqvist became the full-time starter in 2006. Biron has earned his added playing time by going 8-2-0 with a 2.06 GAA and .922 save percentage.

As 2011 Stanley Cup finalists Boston and Vancouver proved, having two capable goaltenders can take you far.

3. Marian Gaborik doesn't need Brad Richards

When Brad Richards signed a nine-year deal this summer, many believed he was coming to New York to revive Marian Gaborik, who dipped to 22 goals last season after scoring 42 in his first season with the Rangers.

Tortorella tried Richards and Gaborik together early in the season, but it wasn't clicking like he'd hoped. As the season progressed, the Rangers suddenly had two very potent lines with Richards and Gaborik separated.

Gaborik discovered chemistry with Derek Stepan and Artem Anisimov and has a 50-goal season within reach. Richards has seen his linemates change more frequently, but lately he's been clicking with Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky.

Two deadly lines is something the Rangers have lacked in recent seasons. With Gaborik and Richards finding success on different lines, the Rangers are far more difficult to defend. The Rangers have also received quality minutes from their third and fourth lines.

4. The kids are alright

Injuries on the blue line have forced McDonagh, 22, and Del Zotto, 21, to grow up quickly. While Del Zotto has been leading the way offensively from the back end, McDonagh has been the shut-down blueliner the Rangers needed with Staal out of the lineup.

McDonagh is ranked 12th in the NHL in ice time at 25:07. Along with defense partner Girardi, he has played almost exclusively against the opposition's top scorers and has looked like a seasoned veteran.

Stepan turned 21 in June. On a team with playmaker extraordinaire Richards, Stepan leads the team's forwards in assists with 18 and will exceed his numbers from last season, his first in the NHL, if he keeps up this pace.

Artem Anisimov and Marian Gaborik celebrate after their line scored a goal. (Photo: Getty Images)
Anisimov, 23, has found a comfort level since being moved from center to wing. While Gaborik is the finisher and Stepan the passer on their line, Anisimov is the big presence who gets his goals from in front of the net and wins battles along the wall.

Even 23-year-old Carl Hagelin has chipped in with 7 goals and 4 assists in 20 games since being called up at the end of November. He's seen time on a line with Richards and Callahan and has a pair of two-goal games to his credit.

The Rangers have the sixth-youngest team in the League, and those young players haven't been passengers on a winning team.

5. Growth through adversity

Injuries aren't the only obstacle the Rangers have had to hurdle during the first three months of the season -- their unique schedule to start the season has been perhaps their biggest test.

The Rangers are the only team ever to open the season in Europe as part of the NHL Premiere and play in a Winter Classic in the same season.

Following their return from two weeks in Europe, the Rangers didn't play their first home game of the season until Oct. 27 due to renovations at Madison Square Garden. While in Europe, the "Broadway hat" was purchased by Richards. It's given to the team's best player following a victory and has been become a point of pride for the players.

The hype of the Winter Classic also comes with HBO's "24/7" cameras, which followed the Rangers around for a month. It makes for great viewing for fans, but it's a situation that can provide added stress for players who crave routine during the season.

All those little quirks and nuances in the early schedule have made the Rangers closer than ever under Tortorella.

It also should be noted that in three of the last four seasons, a team that has played in the Winter Classic has reached the Stanley Cup Final. Also, the last three NHL Premieres have yielded a team that has reached the Cup Final. That all bodes very well for the this season's Rangers.

6. Back-to-backs are their bread and butter

A hallmark of a Tortorella-coached team is the grueling training camp that lays the foundation for the rest of the season. It focuses on stamina, and while it may be a nightmare for the players in September, it pays dividends during the season.

The Rangers enter Friday's game against the Penguins coming off a 3-2 win against the Panthers on Thursday. In the second half of back-to-backs this season, the Rangers are 4-0-1. Since 2009-10, they are 25-8-3 in those games.

Biron has been just as big a factor as the team's energy level. The Rangers are 9-0-2 in both sets of back-to-backs, and the veteran backup has gone 4-0-0 during those contests.

7. There's no quit in the Rangers

Two seasons ago, there wasn't a team worse than the Rangers when trailing after two periods -- they went 1-25-2 in that scenario.

This season, no team has been better.

Their 3-6-1 record may not seem like much, but their .300 winning percentage is tops in the League and those seven points earned are the difference between first and fifth in the League standings. Perhaps even more encouraging than their ability to rally is the fact they've only trailed entering the third period 10 times this season. It's tied with the Bruins for the fewest in the League.

8. Captain Callahan

Throw the "C" on a player for the first time and maybe it messes with their game. For Ryan Callahan, it's made him more effective.

The 26-year-old had to fill the shoes of Chris Drury, one of the more respected leaders in the NHL in recent years. All Callahan has done is post the best offensive numbers in his career while anchoring the sixth-best penalty-killing unit in the NHL. Despite being listed at 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, Callahan once again leads the team in hits at 135, fourth-most in the NHL.

Callahan epitomizes the organization's movement to developing draft picks while at the same time symbolizes the identity of the Rangers that Tortorella has forged since arriving at the end of the 2008-09 season. Callahan may not be the most skilled player, but his toughness and hard work make him every coach's dream.

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo
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