The Rangers’ California Dream

New York Rangers vs. Los Angeles Kings

In the last 35 days, the Rangers have lost once. Once. An eight-game winning streak and a five-game winning streak sandwiched around a 3-2 loss in Dallas that wouldn’t have happened if Glen Sather didn’t give Tanner Glass a three-year, $4.35 million contract. After a slow and injury-plagued start to the season made me think we might not see the kind of run the Rangers went on last spring for another two decades, the Rangers got healthy, got hot and have turned the last five weeks into a demolition of the rest of the league.

Prior to the Rangers’ California road trip, their 10 wins in 11 games came against Pittsburgh, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Carolina (2), Washington, New Jersey, Florida and Buffalo. If the season ended today, only Pittsburgh, Vancouver and Washington would be playoff teams out of that list. So it made some sense that Rangers critics were skeptical of how good they had been because they beat up on the bad teams in the league (which is exactly what good teams do) even if they had outscored their opponents 40-17.

California was supposed to be the end of the Rangers’ best run in 20 years. Three games in four nights against the league’s best team points-wise, the defending champions and the team that has been predicted more to win the Cup than any other team in the last nine years was supposed to confirm for the critics that the 2014-15 Rangers aren’t ready to be considered elite or Cup contenders. But four days and six points later following their run against the Pacific Division, the Rangers are both of those things.

Let’s look back at a memorable weekend, in which the Rangers went 3-0 against the Ducks, Kings and Sharks and outscored them 11-5.

The hype that usually surrounds the Sharks, also surrounds the Ducks, but because the Ducks won the Cup in 2006-07, they have been less of a disappointment than their two-year-older division rival. Over the last seven seasons since their Cup run, the Ducks have yet to return to the Western Conference finals and have lost all three Game 7s they have been in. However, this season, the Ducks have played like the best team in the league over the first half of the season despite the assumption that the Western Conference finals will once again include the Kings and Blackhawks.

Going into the California road trip, I figured the Rangers would likely leave the West Coast with two points. They had won 10 of 11 and when they met the Ducks on Wednesday night, it would have been 10 days since the Rangers’ last home game. (From Dec. 29 to Jan. 18 the Rangers will play 10 games and just two of those will have been home.) At some point, the travel would catch up with the team near the halfway point of the season, so this felt like the time it would happen.

After getting out of the first period tied 0-0 in Anaheim, it felt like a minor victory. The Rangers had outshot the Ducks 11-8 in the first, but with the Rangers having traveled and the Ducks in the middle of an eight-game homestand, I expected a different start to the game and figured we would watch an opening 20 minutes of dominance from the home team.

The Rangers went up 1-0 after two and eventually took a 2-0 at 2:32 of the third and I figured that with over 17 minutes left to play, at some point we would see the league’s leading team in points show how they compiled those points with incredible play at the Honda Center. It never happened. Sure, I was worried when Francois Beauchemin cut the lead to one before Mats Zuccarello and Dominic Moore put the game out of reach, but I was never truly worried about the Rangers losing the game.

At the time, it was the Rangers’ biggest win of the season. They had gone cross country to face the best team (in the standings) in the middle of a lengthy homestand and beat them offensively and defensively, and of course in goal. And that’s been the most refreshing part about what the Rangers have become: they can beat you more than just in goal. Since the lockout, the Rangers have relied on Henrik Lundqvist to win games for them because more often than not their scoring hasn’t been able to. That’s no longer the case and even with Lundqvist being near-perfect on the first night of the trip, he didn’t have to be.

I didn’t agree with Alain Vigneault’s decision to play Cam Talbot against the Kings. Lundqvist had won 10 of his last 11 starts, giving up more than two goals just twice, and had played just once in the last four days even if that one game happened to have been the night before. And 5:49 into the game when the Kings took a 2-0 lead on the softest of goals allowed by Talbot, I had a few choice words for my TV directed Vigneault. Why wouldn’t you play Lundqvist against the better Kings rather than the Sharks? Let Talbot play in San Jose and then Lundqvist has Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday off before playing the Islanders on Tuesday night. But Talbot settled down and only gave up one more goal over the remaining 54:11 of the game, another one to Williams.

After what happened last June in Games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup Final, this time it was the Kings blowing a two-goal lead even if it came on much lesser scale in a much less important game. Four unanswered goals from the Rangers (two power-play goals), including three in the second period (two of which were 19 seconds apart) and the Rangers had done to the Kings what they had done to them seven months ago. It didn’t avenge what happened on that same ice on June 4 and 7, but it did make me smile and made me realize that this Rangers team can get back to where last year’s team went. It made me realize that this Rangers team is better than last year’s team.

I can’t remember a time feeling confident that the Rangers could win any game. East Coast or West Coast, home or away on back-to-back nights or after a five-day layoff, the Rangers can be expected to win every game against any opponent. I have never had this feeling about them before and the only downfall of this amazing five-plus week run that started on Dec. 8 is that I wish the playoffs started today and not three months from now.

I was at a dinner on Saturday (that thankfully lasted the entire Patriots-Ravens game so I didn’t have to watch that debacle), which eventually led to going to a bar while the Rangers-Sharks game started. After what the Rangers had been through over the last 12 games and what they had been through in just the last two in Southern California, when I spotted the game on at the bar and went to look at the score, I expected them to be winning. Let me repeat that: When I checked the score of a Rangers-Sharks game being played in San Jose, I expected the Rangers to be winning.

Last season, the Rangers were embarrassed with a 9-2 loss in San Jose in the third game of the season, a game in which the Rangers would also lose Rick Nash for 17 games thanks to a concussion. When the two teams met again on March 16 at MSG with the Rangers battling for playoff position down the stretch, the Rangers lost again, this time 1-0.

But there I was expecting to see the Rangers winning a game in San Jose, their third game in four nights in California, and they were. It was 2-0 Rangers when I looked at the score near the end of the first period and I wasn’t the least bit surprised. Winning on the road against the Western Conference is now something that has become expected, even if having expectations when it comes to the Rangers is a dangerous game. And not only winning on the road, but winning period is now expected from this team a season after they reached the Stanley Cup Final.

Nothing has ever come easy for the Rangers or their fans though getting two points each game for the last five weeks has felt pretty easy and because of how easy it’s been, it feels weird. Now that the California sweep is complete, the Rangers are back home and back on the East Coast to face the Islanders and Bruins and things aren’t likely to stay this easy, but I wish they would.