The Rangers Future Begins Tonight…In December

Jeff Gorton (Robert Sabo)
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December 10th, 2018. 

Remember the date above, for the New York Rangers’ next 10 months of front office wrangling, moves, trade & non-trades, waives, buy-outs, hopes, dreams & in the end — direction — are about to come into crisper focus based on what happens on this night’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning. 

I bet you never thought that game 30 of an 82 game slog that is the NHL regular season would ever be so pivotal. From a standings perspective, it isn’t; but from a forward looking lens, it will surely inform everyone on the New York side of things as to where the heck this is all going.

And we have the Colorado Avalanche to thank for it.

You see, two days ago, the Avalanche — an excellent 17–7–5 team and winners of 10 of their last 13 games, and amazingly eight of their last ten on the road — headed into Amalie Arena to face the 23–7–1 Lightning team in a battle of NHL titans. Except the Bolts absolutely crushed them 7–1, scoring six goals in the first 30 minutes alone. A real stinker for the boys from Colorado, for sure — but it happens, and they ran into a runaway hockey train departing from Tampa Bay.

What’s this have to do with the NY Rangers? Actually, everything. They’re in a full/modified/bastardized rebuilding mode, by all accounts — and they’ve got a ticket for that smooth rolling Tampa train tonight at 7:30 PM. 

To update, the Blueshirts are not in the neighborhood of 7–21–3, as was quite reasonable to predict before the season began. They’re 14–12–3, a much more respectable enclave that is thinking more about maybe opening a Chase™ on its corner and maybe one fewer Check Cashed joint, if they can help it. They have one of the youngest teams in the league, some sweet talent waiting in the wings, and some pretty promising starts from stalwarts like Vesey, Kreider, Hayes & Zibanejad. Plus a fairly decent goalie — who if you ever doubt its importance, see what happened to Semyon Varlamov against Tampa the other night, and let me know if it matters. 

Will Hank get lit up like that tonight? Will you see Mika’s hair flailing in the wind trying some wacky move, or Tony DeAngelo take one too many steps forward to keep one in against McDonagh on the blue line — leaving Stamkos, who’s always in a hammock in the neutral zone it seems waiting for a pass — and we’re here tomorrow talking about an 8–3 drubbing?

I actually don’t think so. Will they win? Probably not, but how they perform will have a really big impact as to whether Gorton sits back with his beer in the second period, lets out a resolved sigh, and says “Ok, ok…I get it; no need to pile on. Sorry, Zucc…[Starts fiddling with his cellphone, Googling who the GM of Winnipeg is].”

Or…he starts thinking about the Blues and the Flyers and Tarasenko and Simmons or Giroux and what size jersey they are and what numbers are reserved or in the rafters already. It’s a position I’m not envious of, frankly, but that’s the job. He pulled off some serious magic at the end of last season with Tampa and the Bruins getting back just all sorts of things for…the silently retired Rick Nash, Ryan McDonagh & JT Miller. 

In my estimation, tonight will, or at least should, go a long way to let the Rangers know whether they are a team that can give a stud thoroughbred like Tampa a real agitating time in a seven-game series. If the Avalanche, with their record and Grade-A top line, couldn’t give a representative effort against Tampa losing in a baseball score, what the heck could the young & upstart Rangers possibly do, right?

David Quinn does his darndest to make sure his boys take no shifts off. Everyone accountable, all the time. You also can’t stress goaltending enough, just ask Dominik Hašek the difference one man can make on a team and in a series. One where Hank can stand on his head here and there, and always give you a chance to win on any given night; and hope that youngsters like Neal Pionk’s eyes light up with big-stage opportunity & Kreider revs it up a little higher on nights like Dec. 10th, 2018. 

The message should be don’t treat tonight like a playoff game, because this is actually more than a playoff game; it’s going to let us know which contact the GM is going to tap on his cellular device tomorrow morning (or late in the second period tonight) that will have ripple and guiding effects into next week, next month and all the way to next season. 

Not bad for a seemingly inconsequential game in mid-December. I’ll be watching.