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Rangers, Islanders lead resurgence in Metropolitan

by Kevin Weekes

After every Metropolitan Division team except for the Pittsburgh Penguins got off to a tough start, we're seeing a major shift lately. A number of teams in that division have shown some real signs of life, and it could be the New York Rangers who are making the biggest push as we head into the Olympic break.

The Rangers have been a lot better. To me, it all starts with Henrik Lundqvist. Cam Talbot has been amazing and Hank in his last few games has been outstanding. There are parts of his game that he has really built on and he's starting to gain some momentum. If he's able to play like that, it covers some of the mistakes that we've seen from the Rangers.

They're not as fast as the Chicago Blackhawks or Montreal Canadiens, but they're showing great speed from the likes of Carl Hagelin, Dominic Moore and Mats Zuccarello on the forecheck. And don't forget Chris Kreider, who is a speed demon. Those guys get in there and they can have an influence on the game.

The New York Rangers and New York Islanders have rebounded after slow starts to the season to get back into the hunt in the Metropolitan Division. (Photo: Getty Images)

But it really comes down to goaltending.

Henrik likes to play deep. He's one of the few goalies who can play deep effectively. He played very aggressively when he was in Sweden. But when he came to the NHL, Rangers' goalie coach Benoit Allaire made the adjustment for him to play more conservatively and stay in the blue paint. Benny also helped him learn when to challenge and come out and when to stay in the blue paint.

I had a great chat with Henrik a couple of weeks ago, and the thing I took away was that Henrik Lundqvist has been a rock star since he came to the NHL. He expects himself to be great. He prepares and works to be great. All of a sudden, for the first time in his career, there was a stretch earlier this season where he wasn't as great. That's tough to deal with.

Certainly it was hard for him because he's never struggled before in the NHL. I think it was a temporary thing. You don't forget how to play goal over a five-month period, especially when you have the body of work that he has.

All that matters is that his game is back on track right now. There's a lot that I'm sure he and Benoit Allaire have gone over these past few weeks. And it's helping the Rangers get ready for a potential playoff run.

Staying in the New York area, let's give the New York Islanders some love. How about John Tavares? You want to talk about a guy who has worked and willed himself to become a better player. He's that guy. To me, he's playing on an MVP-type level. Also, Kyle Okposo's game has come a very long way. He's become a top-tier power forward this season. He's put in a lot of work in the offseason and now he's got more of a blend between being a skill player and still being a big-body power forward. Add Thomas Vanek to that line, and you have a trio that people aren't talking about enough.

I'd have to say that line is in the upper echelon right now. There's no question that they're a top-10 line in the League. Sure, there are plenty of amazing forward lines in the NHL There is Sidney Crosby's line, when everyone is healthy, and Evgeni Malkin's line is dangerous when he gets things going with James Neal. There is the Tyler Seguin/Jamie Benn line in Dallas, the David Krejci line in Boston, the Corey Perry/Ryan Getzlaf line in Anaheim. By the time you go around the League, you have to put Tavares, Okposo and Vanek in the top 10.

It may not be the fastest line, but you get a lot of puck possession and guys who can do multiple things in the offensive zone. Vanek is as good a passer as he is a shooter and he can deflect pucks. Okposo is a big body who is hard to defend and can get in the rush. Then Tavares is Tavares, he can make plays on both ends of the ice and he distributes as well as he scores. Put them all together and you have a great line -- and a line I think has opened a lot of eyes in this last stretch.

We'll have to see if that line is good enough to lead the Islanders to the playoffs. But after a rough start, the Metropolitan is now one of the most exciting divisions in hockey.

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