As 2008 was giving way to 2009, the New York Rangers
were going back to the basics in long and spirited practice sessions.
The Rangers hit the ice at their practice facility in Greenburgh, N.Y. three times in four days, taking only New Year's Day to unwind before a Jan. 3 game at Washington. It was their longest stretch of practices since training camp, and they believe it is paying dividends.
The Rangers head into their weekend games -- Friday at Chicago and Sunday at Pittsburgh (12:30 p.m. ET, The NHL on NBC) -- feeling as though they have finally embraced their identity as a blue-collar, disciplined, low-scoring, defense-first team backed by an all-world goalie.
Their last three games suggest as much.
The Rangers played tough in Buffalo, but were edged in a shootout, 2-1. They came back the next night in Ottawa and kept the reeling Senators off the board for a 2-0 victory. Tuesday night on Long Island, they squeezed out another 2-1 win.
They committed a combined seven penalties in the three games and did not give up a power-play goal.
"If you invite (discipline) into your game day after day and you start to see success, over time it starts to sell itself," Rangers coach Tom Renney said. "We might only be at the front end of that, but better late than never."
Second-year center Brandon Dubinsky
is one who believes the attitude change occurred during that stretch of three practices from Dec. 30-Jan. 2.
"I thought it was a good week for us because we got to practice longer and harder on stuff that was dropping off in our game, which was defensive zone coverage and really battling," Dubinsky told NHL.com. "We weren't able to do that (earlier) because we had so many games in a short amount of time."
According to Dubinsky, the Rangers' play in January so far closely resembles how they played in October, when they were 6-1-1 in one-goal games despite scoring more than three goals in just two of those eight games. They were 10-2-1 in October.
"If you ever saw us in the third period (in October) down a goal, tied or up a goal, we were going to win the game," Dubinsky said. "Everybody in here knew it."
A number of Rangers pointed to their shutout win over Ottawa this past Saturday as the perfect example of executing their game plan. They were playing the second half of a back-to-back, but kept things simple, remained disciplined and won.
The simplicity, according to goalie Henrik Lundqvist
, is spellbinding.
"The last two weeks we corrected small, small things that make a big difference, but it's not like we're skating faster or we pass the puck better," Lundqvist said. "It's small things like where we put pucks and where we have our third guy high."
"The last two weeks we corrected small, small things that make a big difference, but it's not like we're skating faster or we pass the puck better. It's small things like where we put pucks and where we have our third guy high."
-- Henrik Lundqvist
The reeling Senators had just three power-play chances totaling 5:35.
"Playing a team like Ottawa, which hasn't been winning a lot, their best chance is to get some power plays and get some confidence," Lundqvist said. "It's critical when you play teams like that not to take too many penalties."
Ottawa's big three -- Daniel Alfredsson
, Jason Spezza
and Dany Heatley
-- were basically eliminated. They combined for 10 relatively uneventful shots.
"It wasn't like we were sticking one defensive unit against them," Dubinsky said. "It was a combined four-line effort. It was, 'Whoever is against them, just do your job.'
"What we have gotten back to is that style where we're confident that no matter what line we put on the ice they are going to shut down whoever they are playing against."
The Rangers' only forgettable game this month was Jan. 7 when Montreal beat them at the Garden, 6-3. That night they committed five penalties, gave up two power-play goals and their League-leading 12th shorthanded goal against.
"You go the first part of the season trying to figure out who you are and how it's going to look," Rangers broadcaster and former defenseman Dave Maloney
told NHL.com. "Then, you start to finally believe who you are and then you have to play that way down the stretch. These guys have to be a responsible, low scoring team that relies on their goaltender. That's how they were early and you probably saw that in the last five or six games."
"Defense is tough, ugly hockey but everyone on this team has embraced it. The coaches and Chris as captain have instilled the mentality that if we all buy into the concept we're going to be successful." -- Paul Mara
To get it back, the Rangers had to again believe the selfless system that worked in October was best for them. Considering you're talking about sacrificing goals for defense, that's not such an easy message to hammer home.
The big-money players have to swallow their pride and backcheck for their paycheck. The defensemen have to be grittier, more willing to pay a price and less willing to take a chance. The goalie has to make sure he doesn't have an off night.
Even the coaching staff has to be OK with a few extra gray hairs.
Renney fully admits he'd rather not win 2-1 games, but understands that just might be who the Rangers are this season.
"Defense is tough, ugly hockey but everyone on this team has embraced it," defenseman Paul Mara
told NHL.com. "The coaches and Chris as captain have instilled the mentality that if we all buy into the concept we're going to be successful."
Contact Dan Rosen at email@example.com.