Winners of three straight and four of their last five, the Rangers will face another test on their Eastern Conference slate when they host the Philadelphia Flyers tonight at Madison Square Garden (7:00 PM ET, MSG Network/espn2, WBBR 1130 AM).
The Blueshirts have shown signs of turning things around a bit in their last 10 games after a frustrating start to the season. Playing with a greater defensive awareness as well as taking advantage of offensive opportunities created by turnovers and strong forechecking, New York is finding a way to battle through a rash of injuries that has depleted their lineup for the past month.
There are many factors to this recent turnaround.
You can point to the potent line of Bobby Holik, Eric Lindros and Matthew Barnaby, who have collectively combined for 32 points in the last 10 games (13 goals, 19 assists). Holik has notched 12 points (five goals, seven assists) over the span, including a team-high nine-game point streak and a +9 rating. Lindros is currently riding a three-game point streak (one goal, three assists) and has recorded 11 points in the last nine games, along with a +10 mark. And Barnaby, who has fit in well as the left winger on the line, has posted nine points (four goals, five assists) and a +8 rating in his last nine games.
Equally as important to the Rangers' recent run is the play of Petr Nedved and Radek Dvorak. Nedved, who missed four games with a hip pointer, returned to the lineup to net a pair of goals in Saturday's 3-1 win in Pittsburgh and three more in Monday's 5-1 crushing of the Maple Leafs. Nedved has arguably been the most consistent forward on the Blueshirt roster this season after struggling to find his stride in 2001-02.
Dvorak has also picked up his play of late, collecting a pair of assists in the last four games and unleashing nine shots on goal in the last two. After undergoing off-season reconstructive knee surgery, Dvorak looks as though he has regained much of his jump and quickness in recent games - a necessary component to his game.
The acquisition of Mike Dunham from Nashville on December 12 has proven to have paid immediate dividends thus far. Dunham has posted a 7-5-2 mark in 14 games with the Blueshirts, including a 4-0-0 clip in his last four games, allowing only one goal in each of those matches.
"We've been getting some good goaltending and we've been playing a pretty patient game lately," said Rangers captain Mark Messier of Dunham. "When you get good goaltending, it gives everyone more confidence out there."
Confidence is also one thing that the soon-to-be 42-year old captain has also shown of late ... in addition to a little offense. Messier has recorded points in five of his last six games (one goal, four assists) and has registered 10 points (two goals, eight assists) in his last 12 matches. Flanked on the wings by recent Hartford Wolf Pack call-ups Jamie Lundmark and John Tripp, Messier looks as though he has plenty of fuel left in the tank. Skating alongside a few 20-somethings can have that effect.
"If I can be a settling presence for those guys and let them play their games, it lets them do what they did in the minors," said Messier on being paired with Lundmark and Tripp. "The big thing when they come up is not to try to fill their heads with too much information. Just give them some confidence and they can make an impact."
Messier's presence has paid dividends for the two. Lundmark has recorded three points while Tripp has notched a pair of assists (his first NHL points) in five games since their recall. Both players have also posted a plus or even rating in four of those five. The line has created many offensive chances while playing a conscious, responsible, all-around game as well.
On the defensive side of things, the Rangers have kept opponents to two goals or less in seven of their last 10 games. Despite missing Brian Leetch, Dale Purinton and Sylvain Lefebvre due to injury, New York's present defensive contingent of Tom Poti, Darius Kasparaitis, Vladimir Malakhov, Boris Mironov, Joel Bouchard and Dave Karpa has strung together a stretch of simple, smart, consistent efforts.
Kasparaitis has been a rock on the blueline lately, showing that he can manage a mix of his hard-hitting style with a sound, conscious defense-first mentality. After an early string of 'minus' games, Kasparaitis has notched a plus or even rating in nine of his last 10 matches, posting a +5 mark over the span.
The acquisition of Mironov has also provided a settling effect on the Blueshirt blueline. Since arriving on Broadway on January 8, he has paired with Malakhov to form quite a tandem. Mironov has collected a pair of assists and a +3 rating, while Malakhov has registered two assists and a +3 mark over the span. But even more importantly, the former Russian teammates have been able to move the puck confidently and have consistently played a part in shutting down the opposition's top players, including the likes of Alexei Kovalev, Mats Sundin and Jaromir Jagr in the past week.
One of the most pleasant surprises in the Rangers' recent surge has been the play of Bouchard, who has gone through quite a bit to get another shot in the NHL. After undergoing a bout with spinal meningitis a few years back and a having a tumor removed this past off-season, Bouchard has displayed a flair for offense, while being reliable in his own end as well. In the last 10 games, he has tallied three goals and three assists along with a +2 rating.
"I think we are really beginning to gel together as a team, from the coaches on down to the players," noted Bouchard after scoring the game-winner in Wednesday 2-1 OT win in Washington.
Rangers head coach Bryan Trottier saw Wednesday's OT win as a strong response to the kinds of conference battles that the Rangers will face the rest of the way.
"Tonight was a good notch for our guys," said Trottier after the game. "All six defensemen played a strong game. Our forwards played disciplined hockey. It was a good test for us and we really dug deep with a good effort."
New York plays 28 of their final 34 games against Eastern Conference opponents and 19 of those 34 on the road. The Rangers have also played more games (48) than any other team in the NHL, so with other clubs holding games in hand, a continuation of their recent brand of hockey is a necessity to make a strong playoff push.
"We're still not in a playoff situation right now but we feel confident in how we're playing right now," noted Lindros after Wednesday's game. "But we still have a long way to go."