I got on an early-morning, day-after-Thanksgiving Amtrak to Boston to watch the Rangers play against the league-best Bruins. The decision to battle through a hangover and a stomach full of heavy holiday food as if I were battling Zdeno Chara for position in front of the net to travel a few hours and a few hundred miles to watch the rebuild Rangers play the contending Bruins felt regrettable the second the train left the station. It had been just over a month since the Bruins ran the Rangers out of their own Garden with a 7-4 road win in which the Bruins looked like were from a different league. Now here I was, not in the best conditions, voluntarily traveling to see a potential repeat of that game.
For the last six weeks, the Rangers have been a much different team since that late-October loss, going 10-4-2 in that time (mostly without Mika Zibanejad who was hurt in the October loss to Boston) with impressive wins over Tampa Bay, Nashville, Carolina (twice), Pittsburgh and Washington. The Rangers have, at times, looked like a team which was able to skip the early, depressing phases of a full rebuild by miracously acquiring the No. 2 pick in the 2019 draft and landing the best available free agent in the offseason, and at other times, have looked like the team with the youngest average age in the league, backboned by an inexperienced defense. It’s the Rangers team that beat Tampa Bay and Nashville in back-to-back games, upset Washington and came back from four goals down in Montreal to stun the Canadiens that made me want to get on that train, full knowing that the team which laid a pair of eggs against Ottawa in November might make an appearance.
The Rangers jumped out to a 1-0 lead in Boston and increased it to 2-0. But with the seemingly impossible way two-goals leads have been getting blow in the league this season coupled with the Bruins having not lost a home regulation game since Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, the Bruins were down but far from out. After receiving a lucky bounce in which Henrik Lundqvist put the puck in his own net, the Bruins were on the board in the final two minutes of the second, and less than five minutes into the third, the game was tied. The Rangers wasted a 5-on-3 in the second and a four-minute power play in the third, and when David Quinn sent the unusual combination of Ryan Strome, Pavel Buchnevich and Adam Fox out in overtime, a loss was inevitable. Seconds after those three hit the ice, the goal horn was going off and “Zombie Nation” was blaring.
It was a crushing loss considering the two-goal lead and the two advantageous power-play opportunities, but from a big-picture perspective, it was a well-earned point on the road against the best team in the NHL a month after that same team embarrassed the Rangers. Even better for the big picture was the Rangers’ ability to bounce back with a 4-0 win game less than 24 hours later in New Jersey against their well-rested rival.
A year ago, the Rangers also played on the day after Thanksgiving in what was a 4-0 loss the Flyers. That Rangers team went on to lose 42 of their remaining 62 games, finishing with the fifth-worst record in the Eastern Conference and the least amount of regulation wins in the NHL. It was an expected outcome in the first full season of the rebuild and a glimpse into what might be a very long road to getting back to the playoffs. It felt like the Rangers were in the beginning of an extended dark era with no real timeline for when the next time their season might have an 83rd game. The final years of Lundqvist’s career were wilting away like the rose in the glass case in Beauty and the Beast and the Rangers were going to have to succesfully hit on an unprecedented amount of draft picks for several years to escape their lack of talent.
The chance to draft Kaapko Kakko, sign Artemi Panarin and use Winnipeg’s own first-round pick to acquire Jacob Trobua quickly changed the Rangers’ fortunes and future. Those three offseason acquisitions combined with the reliable Mika Zibanejad, a breakout season from Strome, Tony DeAngelo and Pavel Buchnevich finally realizing their potential, the already-arrived offense of 21-year-olds Fox and Ryan Lindgren, Filip Chytil’s 0.50 goals per game and Lundqvist beating the crap out of Father Time has sped up the rebuild and has the Rangers on the playoff bubble through 30 percent of the season.
I expected to see a lot more games like the late-October loss to Boston this season than I expected to see games like the late-November loss to Boston and the quick turnaround win over New Jersey. I expected the Rangers to certainly be more enjoyable to watch than they were last season and for a few surprising upsets along the way, but I didn’t expect this kind of success, this often, even if the season is only two months old. Each game feels like a playoff game as this roster has little margin for error and each win feels like a major accomplishment in a division with the Capitals, Islanders, Flyers, Hurricanes and Penguins in windows in which they’re expected to play deep into the spring.
This nearly six-week run which started back on Oct. 24 with an offensive barrage in a 6-2 win over Buffalo could very well come to an end and the other shoe could drop, leaving the Rangers alongside Ottawa, New Jersey and Detroit in the standings, where they were thought to end up before the season began, but I don’t see it. I don’t see this Rangers team going back to the basement of the conference or the league. They might not be a playoff team, but they’re finally headed in the right direction, which didn’t seem possible a year ago at this time.