We normally reserve early December for the annual “What’s wrong with the Rangers?” story. But “normal” vanished a few months ago, and that even extends to our town’s hockey team. This year we’re wondering, “What’s right with the Rangers?”
This is not to say nothing’s wrong on 33rd Street. But when the final buzzer sounds most nights, while his players file off the ice, mustachioed coach Ron Low stands at the gate giving each a playful—and victorious—punch as they pass. Two months into the season, and the Rangers, skating with a growing confidence not seen here for a long time, lead the Eastern Conference.
No one’s quite certain whether the Rangers can remain prosperous. They pile up points early, but their victims are frequently clubs that either didn’t make the playoffs or that have tumbled off last year’s form. And yet, that’s a good amount of teams. If so much of the league is beatable, could be the Rangers really belong among hockey’s elite.
What’s gone right starts with one thing that’s still wrong, namely that they surrender far too many shots. The 40-save outing is almost a way of life for goaltenders Mike Richter and Dan Blackburn. Old man Richter (35 and playing magnificently on a pair of stitched-together knees) and the teenaged Blackburn (who’s been equally strong) held the fort for the entire month of November while their playmates tried to figure out which opposing skater had the puck. Their desperate acrobatics on demand bring to mind barefaced Gump Worsley, who bravely threw his plump frame at too many pucks in an often futile effort to save the inept early-’60s Blueshirts.
The Rangers of the Gumper’s day couldn’t offset his inevitable leaks with goals of their own, but that’s no problem now. League-wide scoring continues to decline (last year’s goals per game totaled 5.49; this year, they total 5.21), but Low—perhaps out of necessity—defies the defensive trend. He has at his disposal a combustible set of offensive forwards whose speed, skill, and size he’s blended well enough to ignite the second-highest goal total in the NHL.
Low’s most impressive trio combines five-foot-six Theo Fleury and five-foot-10 Mike York with the skating apartment building, Eric Lindros. All rank among the NHL’s top 10 scorers, and Lindros led everyone in scoring for November. They are also fun to watch, crashing the offensive zone, driving to the net, forcing opponents to retreat, knocking them off the puck, and throwing it around themselves with ferocity and great accuracy.
They don’t share with the boys on the other team, either. Fleury’s +22, Lindros’s +21, and York’s +20 plus/ minus ratings rank one, two, and three in the league. That’s hockeyspeak for the following: When Fleury’s been on the ice and the teams are at even strength, the Rangers have outscored opponents by an impressive 22 goals. When you always have the puck, the other guys can’t score. The threesome now own the acronymic nickname of the FLY Line. It works on a few levels, especially when one considers their relative sizes and the chaos they create. There’s a certain resemblance to classic Japanese sci-fi cinema’s Mothra, the giant mischievous moth, and Shobijin, Mothra’s tiny, winged twin cohorts who share one name.
Everyone knows Lindros and Fleury, but third-year pro York could be star-bound too, as he impresses more with each outing. His agility regularly buys Fleury and Lindros (and defensemen Brian Leetch and Vladimir Malakhov, who usually skate with the FLY Line) extra time to find the holes in the defensive coverage. Amazingly nimble, sure-handed and wide-eyed, York literally jumped away from a Carolina defender last week to avoid getting plastered to the corner boards; he also maintained control of the puck and quickly passed it perfectly to Lindros. They didn’t score that time, but it kept the pressure on during a 5-0 game in which York did score a goal and garner two assists.
Standing in the dressing room afterward, still a bit disheveled, York seemed wary of the attention as he took questions from a few reporters. Wearing a slightly sheepish grin, he offered what seemed like cliché when asked what might account for his increased production: “We just want to keep it simple out there.” In truth, that is how the Rangers like to play.
For that simple game to triumph, the Rangers know they must improve defensively or their goalies will grow shopworn. They must stop taking undisciplined penalties, a hangover from the past two seasons. This team likes rugged hockey, and it works for them. But they play poorly shorthanded, and this could be their undoing. They’ve also enjoyed good health thus far, but injuries happen in hockey, and one or two hurt guys could darken the horizon. Yep, it could all go wrong.
But maybe not.