Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
When the Beatles sang about the "The Long and Winding Road," they weren't referring to the NHL season, but they might as well have been.
Like other professional sports, the process of trying to improve a hockey team seems to be an unending chain of events. Just weeks after the Stanley Cup playoffs end there is the Entry Draft, and shortly after that is the NHL's free-agency signing period.
But, signing away talent from other teams does not immediately improve a hockey team. Instead, there is sometimes a period of adjustment when clubs struggle to find a way to fit their new acquisitions successfully into the lineup.
Just ask the New York Rangers, who made a big splash this summer in free agency, but took months to come together and justify the hype that came with this past summer's signings.
The Rangers signed not one, but two of the NHL's most sought after free agents this offseason, as they inked centermen Scott Gomez and Chris Drury. Both players came with hefty price tags, Gomez signing a seven-year, $51 million deal while Drury was given $35 million over five years.
The Rangers felt justified in spending that kind of money, considering it made them one of the favorites on paper to win the Eastern Conference, and possibly the Stanley Cup, in 2007-08. After all, New York already had prolific scoring wingers like Jaromir Jagr and Brendan Shanahan, so adding a pair of top-end pivots to the mix seemed like a smart move by general manager Glen Sather.
Chris Drury and Scott Gomez have finally brought the scoring consistency that the Rangers were seeking this offseason.
But, to paraphrase an old proverb, "There is many a slip between the cup and lip." Initially, the moves to bring Gomez and Drury into the fold didn't result in an improved Rangers' offense, with the club instead grinding out wins and relying on franchise goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.
There were even rumors that by signing Gomez and Drury and letting former top centerman Michael Nylander walk to Washington that the Rangers had upset Jagr, who is a close friend of Nylander. But, that talk subsided when Nylander suffered a season-ending injury in mid-January, which was also the time the Rangers' offense and team began to jell.
The Blueshirts scored just 118 goals through the first 49 games of the season, for an average of 2.4 goals per game. In 21 games since then, New York has scored 68 times for an average of 3.2 goals per contest.
Gomez and Drury have been particularly strong for the Rangers during the last 21 games. Gomez is averaging a point per game during the run, posting 21 points (4 goals, 17 assists), while Drury has notched 10 goals and seven helpers over the same stretch. The duo has finally brought the scoring consistency that the Rangers were seeking this offseason.
Not surprisingly, the Rangers have greatly improved their situation over that 21-game span, a period in which the club has posted a superb 15-3-3 record. With 83 points, New York has moved itself into the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race, and is tied with Ottawa for the fifth seed.
The Rangers have also won seven of their last eight games and have managed to register a point in 13 consecutive games, going 10-0-3 during that stretch.
However, New York's rise hasn't just been about offense, because the club has been playing solid defense all season long. In fact, the Blueshirts are fifth in the NHL and second in the Eastern Conference with just 2.36 goals allowed per game.
Lundqvist has been especially terrific in net over the last few weeks, surrendering just 14 goals over his last eight starts.
It would also be wrong to write a piece on the revitalized Rangers and not mention the team's heart-and-soul, Sean Avery. The 5-foot-9 winger is the definition of the word "sparkplug," and does it all for New York - scoring, scrapping and talking trash to get underneath the opposition's skin.
Avery has added an extra dimension of energy to the Rangers' lineup and was certainly a bargain last season, when New York acquired him from the Los Angeles Kings last year for journeyman winger Jason Ward and pair of minor prospects.
All of these pieces have melded into the team that many thought the Rangers would be before the 2007-08 season began. The team is in contention, and Sather didn't even need to make any significant deals at the trade deadline to get his club on the right track.
New York still has 12 regular season games to improve its standing in the East, which is certainly possible considering it lies just three points out of the top seed.
Even if the Rangers don't get home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs, the East is so wide open this year that any team, especially one as hot as this one, will have a decent chance to make a run this spring.
After a slow start to the season, the Rangers are firing on all cylinders, and if they carry their improved play into the last month of the season, they'll be a tough draw come playoff time.