California, here we come...
The Rangers left New York on Thursday for their first West Coast road trip since the 2003-04 season. The four-game stint begins Saturday evening in Phoenix and continues with three games in California next week, where the Blueshirts will face Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Jose.
These games will be the Rangers' first against teams from the NHL's Pacific Division since they swept the Coyotes and Kings on the road in late December of 2003. The Rangers have not played all three California-based teams in the same trip since December 2000, when they went 0-2-1 on the West Coast.
Prior to the 2001-02 season, annual West Coast swings like this one were common for Atlantic Division teams. A recent emphasis in scheduling more games against local rivals has limited the amount of long-distance travel, making this trip a truly special moment in the season.
The trip also comes at an important time for Rangers, who has been through a roller-coaster ride over the past two weeks. Since winning their first two, the Blueshirts have gone 2-4-0 -- showing flashes of brilliance that have been difficult to sustain. Through their first nine games, the Rangers have scored 32 goals in regulation -- even more than they had at this point last season. But they have not been the same team defensively, allowing 36 goals as opposed to 21 through nine games in 2005-06.
A long stretch away from The Garden should give the Rangers a chance to bond further and develop even more chemistry as a team.
"I think it will be good for us," assistant coach Benoit Allaire said of the Western trip after Wednesday's loss to Florida. "... We get to get out and stay together, and work together, so it will be a good thing."
Long-distance trips are never easy on athletes, who are separated from their families for longer than usual and must deal with the time-zone differences and tight travel schedule. Following their first two games against Phoenix on Saturday and Los Angeles on Monday, the Blueshirts will be looking at back-to-back games against two of the NHL's hottest teams in Anaheim on Wednesday and San Jose on Thrusday.
"It's definitely a big challenge for us," said center Blair Betts. "We are playing some tough teams out there and it will be a big road trip. We will need to come up with some big wins to get back on track."
One good omen is the Rangers' recent performance in all four arenas -- they are a combined 3-0-1 in their latest visits to each.
The Rangers will be looking for their second straight win in Phoenix, where they are 2-3-2 in the decade since the Coyotes relocated from Winnipeg. In Los Angeles, they will be going after their third win in a row, having not lost at Staples Center since March 9, 2000.
Anaheim's Honda Center, formerly known as The Pond, also brought out the best in the Blueshirts during their last visit, as they crushed the Ducks 6-2 there in February 2003. In San Jose, the Rangers are 2-0-1 since the 2001-02 season and 6-2-2 in their last 10 games.
Brendan Shanahan, a veteran who has seen more Western Conference action than any other member of the current Rangers, has high hopes for the trip's potential to give the Rangers a lift heading into their next home game against league-leading Buffalo on Nov. 5.
" I think its important for the team to get out, get together, and work through our frustration together," Shanahan said. "You know, so far we have a pretty good road record and so we have every reason to believe we can go out there and build on some good things."