February 21, 2021

From blowing leads, injuries, and off-ice drama, this Rangers team is becoming closer and that’s more important than their record

Feb 20, 2021; Washington, District of Columbia, USA; New York Rangers center Mika Zibanejad (93) celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal against the Washington Capitals in the third period at Capital One Arena. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Rangers are making significant strides even though some can’t seem to look past the win/loss column. We can focus on their defensive play and tremendous PK but something much more important is going on.

Team chemistry and bonding.

Artemi Panarin: “We’re creating more mutual respect for each other”

Artemi Panarin picked up two assists, including a nice one on Alexis Lafreniere’s second career NHL goal. Afterwards, both he and the rookie were wearing huge smiles. For the 19 year-old it was a stretch of 9 games between goals. The genuine moment on the bench also provided an additional glimpse into what’s making these guys tick.

Another moment of camaraderie came when Mika Zibanejad scored an empty net shorty to seal the Rangers 4-1 win over the Capitals. You can see relief on Zibanejad’s face turn into a grin from ear-to-ear. That was because Pavel Buchnevich took the monkey off his back and threw it into the stands similar as he did for himself the night before.

The Blueshirts have been going through a tumultuous season but are genuinely bonding. “We clearly have more confidence on this team,” Panarin said after the game. “We’re creating more mutual respect for each other and more care and love for each other and we’re moving in the right direction.”

You learn more about yourself and the team from losing and adversity

I’ve been following the game of hockey for a long time. The game changes from era to era but somethings never do. That’s the simple fact teams who genuinely care about each other do great things.

Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier talk about “family” every single time they discuss the Oilers dynasty. The Great One recalled the epiphany after losing 4 straight in the Stanley Cup Final to the Islanders. His baby Oilers were dejected leaving the rink and dreaded walking past the celebrating Islanders room, but instead they only saw some partying. A majority of the room was players nursing injuries with ice packs. “That’s the difference,” Gretzky remarked and the Oilers won four of the next five Cups.

Mark Messier would take all he learned from Edmonton and bring it to New York. Immediately he took young players like Brian Leetch, Adam Graves, and Mike Richter under his wings. He made sure the team grew closer together with dinners, outings, and his infamous Halloween parties.

The Rangers didn’t enjoy immediate success either. Matter of fact, after an incredible first season the Blueshirts missed the playoffs in 1992-93. But the group literally pulled together and won it all in the next season. “Heave-Ho,” was the Rangers rally cry in 1994. Every man pulling the same rope.

Those are just two prime examples, but you can look at recent Championship winners and see similar things. The baby Blackhawks grew up together to win Cups. Same for those Kings and Penguins teams. Countless stories, none better than Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom with the Capitals who finally raised the trophy after 11 seasons together.

Rangers walking a similar path

alexis lafreniere
Feb 20, 2021; Washington, District of Columbia, USA; New York Rangers left wing Alexis Lafreniere (13) celebrates after scoring a goal on Washington Capitals goaltender Vitek Vanecek (41) in the second period at Capital One Arena. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

When you look at this Rangers team they are walking a similar path. They aren’t just learning to win together, but love the man next to him, to play not for themselves but each other.

The Blueshirts have faced nothing but adversity dating back to the offseason with the buyout of Henrik Lundqvist. The trade of Marc Staal also had an impact in locker-room leadership, and you wonder if he could have kept his defense partner Tony DeAngelo on track.

Ultimately, things with last year’s 4th leading scorer among defensemen got so bad they had to waive him. All this in the face of a pandemic, in a shortened season where they are in the toughest division in hockey.

What Artemi Panarin said can’t be taken lightly. This team has had to say goodbye to many great players in some fashion since “The Letter” went out in 2018. But they’ve been steadfast about doing this the right way and not taking any shortcuts.

In the span of a few years they’ve added Alexis Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko, K’Andre Miller, Adam Fox, and Igor Shesterkin to just name a few. The pipeline is also loaded with prospects and not all will be able to play here.

There will come a time where the Rangers need to decide what trade/move will put them over the top. All winners do it. The Islanders didn’t win a thing until they traded for Butch Goring. Same for the Blackhawks who took a huge chance signing Marian Hossa to a massive free agent deal in 2009.

The Blueshirts are on the verge of making a big move either at the trade deadline or this upcoming offseason. It’s clear that they have the assets and cap space to do something. However, it won’t mean much unless the players care about each other and it’s obvious they do.

Greatness could be just around the corner.

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