You wouldn’t have thought it after their game on Wednesday night, but the Rangers are a very good hockey team.
Their 5-3 loss to Chicago had less to do with their own play, more to do with the masterpiece the Blackhawks painted at Madison Square Garden. You watch the Hawks play and you realize just how much better they are than everyone else. The chemistry they have on the ice is insane; they can make passes and find the open man in ways you’d never expect.
“I think you analyze this one quickly,” said Henrik Lundqvist after the game. “I thought we played a really strong game, it's just their power play killed us. Five-on-5, our power play, it was really good."
Head coach Alain Vigneault shared that same sentiment: ”We played a good game. In my mind, we outshot them, out-chanced them. We had some good offensive-zone time.”
By the looks of things, the Blueshirts didn’t see some of those plays coming, either. Teuvo Teravainen torched the Rangers’ defense twice with a pair of gorgeous assists. All of the focus was on Artemi Panarin’s hat trick, but Teravainen was the unsung hero of this game.
New York bounced back against the Maple Leafs in Toronto the very next night, taking the contest by a 4-2 count. They did lose Ryan McDonagh, who had just returned to the lineup, so that could be an issue depending on the severity and timetable of his injury — if it’s serious.
Nobody’s catching the Washington Capitals for the Metropolitan Division crown at this point, but if there’s another team in the Eastern Conference that can give Ovechkin & Co. a run for their money, it’s the Rangers. If you think about it, it’s been that way for a few years now.
They have the goaltending and the balanced lineup, with the right mix of veterans and youth. If they can bolster their roster with a move or two at the trade deadline, this team is right up there as a Cup contender.
As for the other teams in the Metro, I think the playoff teams are starting to really distinguish themselves from the pretenders. Pittsburgh has awoken from its slumber and is creeping up on the inconsistent Islanders. The Penguins are now just one point behind Brooklyn for third place in the division.
Meanwhile, the Devils have lost four of seven and there are just too many better teams in their path. If they do find a way to sneak in, Cory Schneider needs to be handed the Hart Trophy, no questions asked.
Beyond that, we’ve known what to make of the Hurricanes, Flyers and Blue Jackets all season long.
I think the Rangers will continue to pull away from the Isles and Pens and, as I predicted before the season started, the race to keep an eye on will primarily be between those two teams. I think both will get in, but where they finish could play a major role in whether or not they can advance. It’s going to be a bumpy ride between now and April.
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter @bardownhowitzer