Not since a Stanley Cup--toting Mark Messier floated about the ice at Madison Square Garden in 1994 have the Rangers been such entertaining theater. With fine goaltending and a mostly anonymous, youthful defense, New York (26-9-4) is the NHL's biggest surprise, leading the league with 56 points through Sunday. Including their 3--2 victory in the Winter Classic against the division-rival Flyers on Jan. 2, the no-name Rangers have come from behind to win four straight games and have taken nine of their last 10. "We're not a club that looks around for its stars to bail us out, because we don't really have them," says New York goalie Henrik Lundqvist, the closest thing the team has to a star. "We're confident enough to ask more of ourselves every night."
Lundqvist is good enough to boost any team's confidence. He is second in the league among No. 1 goalies with a 1.89 goals-against average and a .939 save percentage. But even more important, the Rangers—now in their third full season under coach John Tortorella—have reversed a 15-year trend of front-loading their lineup with older, regressing marquee forwards such as Wayne Gretzky, Eric Lindros, Pavel Bure and Jaromir Jagr. They have instead built their identity around a largely unheralded back line that has allowed fewer goals (82) than any club except the defending-champion Bruins. None of the 11 defensemen that the Blueshirts have used in 2011--12 are older than 28, and the best of them, Marc Staal, missed the first 36 games of the season because of postconcussion syndrome. His absence was a disguised blessing, pushing Michael Del Zotto, Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh into more demanding roles. "They have been forced to grow," Tortorella says. Del Zotto, 21, the most skilled of the group, was -25 over his first two seasons but is +25 this year, the league's best mark for any non-Boston player.
Almost as impressive is the way Tortorella has gotten his blueliners to mesh with his forwards, accelerating the transition from defense to offense. "Everyone is finally moving in one direction," says Dave Maloney, a former New York defenseman and captain turned broadcaster. "There is no disconnect here at all. Before the season you'd say, 'Well, Staal's out, their Achilles' heel will be the blue line.' But they are so well coached to make the safe, simple play. Even the forwards have bought in."
That includes Marian Gaborik, who leads the club with 23 goals, one more than he scored all last season and good for third best in the NHL. "This year the offense starts with the defense," says Gaborik. "Come from underneath the play, stay on the strong side of the puck. Doesn't matter if we do it right a hundred times, we have to do it right the next time."
That's a formula for success, and for a deep playoff run on Broadway this spring.
Photograph by SCOTT LEVY/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES
GOT YOUR BACK As good as Girardi (5) and his blue line mates have been, they have been elevated by the sublime play of Lundqvist.