When asked on Monday by BlueshirtsUnited.com if the Rangers were ready for the battle which lies ahead to secure a playoff berth over the final ten weeks and 33 games of the season, Derek Stepan had a broad smile crease his face.
"There were probably 15 guys on the ice 20 minutes or more before practice," offered Stepan after the team reconvened following the All Star break and skated together for the first time in a week. "I think the guys are champing at the bit to get back at it. I think when you go into an All Star break it's always important to be able to have that relaxation, but to also keep that drive and that hunger. I think our guys showed that hunger today."
The players seemed refreshed after getting away with their families, or in some cases with one another, during the All Star break to energize themselves for the final push in the long grueling regular season.
Though many of the Rangers looked tanned and relaxed, all seemed quite focused on the road ahead.
"Every game is huge," stated veteran center Dominic Moore. "Obviously we're in the second half of the season now with lots of divisional games. It's the nature of our sport, every team is good and can beat any other team on any given night. The parity is real in this league."
Henrik Lundqvist added, "It's important that we remain in the moment now. We have to realize what we have to do; and I really think we have the group to do something special if we push ourselves to get it done."
After a difficult month of December the Rangers rebounded to lay much better hockey in January. They resume play Tuesday night against the Devils at the Prudential Center sitting in second place in the Metropolitan Division, third in the Eastern Conference and seventh overall in the entire National Hockey League.
However their 59 points place them just four ahead of the Devils, who currently sit in ninth place in the East. Perhaps that makes it fitting that the Rangers square off against the Devils on Tuesday to kick start their stretch run.
"We're in a playoff race," stated head coach Alain Vigneault. "Other than Washington that has a jump start on everybody, everybody else is in the thick of things. We've been improving. We have a tough opponent tomorrow that's playing well, and it's going to be a tough game."
The Rangers, who are looking to earn their sixth consecutive post season berth--and tenth in the past eleven years, may have won the President's Trophy last season, but they are well accustomed to having to battle their way into the playoffs, as well.
"It's the same every year," offered defenseman Marc Staal. "It's going to be really tight with really competitive games, and it's not going to be easy; but we're looking forward to a good stretch and run to the playoffs."
Added Stepan, "It doesn't need to be said but we're in a playoff push at this point. Look at the standings. We have to make sure we're ready to push starting tomorrow against a team that was playing really well right before the break."
Rick Nash did not skate again Monday due to a bone bruise in his left leg, and he will not play Tuesday against the Devils. Ryan McDonagh, the Rangers All Star representative was given the day off as he returned from Nashville, but he will play Tuesday night.