As we stand poised for the start of the NHL’s “Annual 48-Game Season” (which is actually held about every 20 years, but annual sounded better), the New York Rangers face the sprint to the Stanley Cup as one of the hunted – as opposed to just one of the hunters. Fans can only hope the Blueshirts do better during this 48-game season than they did the last time.

The 1994-95 season was the first time the NHL season saw a 48-game season since the 1941-42 season when the league was comprised of just seven teams. The New York Americans folded at the end of that year and the NHL remained with the “Original Six” until expansion in 1967.

Taking a look back now, it is interesting to note that the Rangers started the 1994-95 season as the defending Stanley Cup champions and they ended the 1941-42 season with the best record in the NHL – with the Toronto Maple Leafs winning the Stanley Cup. Toronto eliminated the Rangers in six games in the Semi-Finals.

The 94-95 Rangers fought tooth and nail just to earn the right to defend the Stanley Cup. Their 22-23-3 record was good enough for an eight place finish as they edged out the Florida Panthers by one point. After eliminating the top-seeded Quebec Nordiques in six games, the Philadelphia Flyers steamrolled the Rangers out of the playoffs in a four-game sweep.

To avoid a repeat performance this season, the Rangers will have to get off to a better start than they did in 1995 when they opened the season 2-5-0. It will not be easy as the Rangers first seven games include home and road games against the Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins and Flyers. The only “soft touch” is a home game against Toronto.

While the NHL did the Rangers no favors with that tough start, it did cut them a break in terms of back-to-back games. The Blueshirts play the fewest sets of back-to-back games (6) while Chicago and Detroit each have 12. The Flyers and New Jersey Devils face 10 sets. The Penguins and New York Islanders face seven sets.

Dirk Hoag of On The Forecheck also put together the total number of miles each team will have to travel this season. The Devils will travel the least amount of miles this season (11,659) with the Rangers just edging the Devils for second fewest (12,048 to 12,159).

While most fans would expect the Winnipeg Jets to log the most miles since they are still stuck in the Eastern Conference, their mileage of 27,431 is surpassed by six Western Conference teams with the Dallas Stars logging the most frequent flyer miles at 31,345.

While not having to deal with an extraordinary number of back-to-back games will save some wear and tear on the Rangers, it might not have been the worst thing to happen to the Blueshirts.

In their December 3, 2012 edition, The Hockey News put together a “Points Percentage” chart that looked at results from the end of 2004-05 Lockout through last season. They studied back-to-back games (2-in-2), three games in four nights (3-in-4) and four games in six nights (4-in-6).

In looking at all of the above scenarios, the Rangers finished with the fourth best “Percentage Points” Behind the Red Wings, San Jose Sharks and Devils. The Blueshirts finished 9th best in 4-in-6 games, 2nd in 3-in-4 games, and were #1 in
2-in-2 games.

While those numbers put the Rangers chances in a good light, they do not take into consideration that the team will not have the benefit of a full training camp. Quite the contrary the Rangers, like all teams, are hitting the ground running at the start of the season. While all the teams are in the same situation at the start of the season, the Rangers are at a bit of a disadvantage.

Coach John Tortorella is known for his boot-camp like training camps where conditioning is just as important as “strategy”, an opinion he shared in an interview with WFAN’s Mike Francesa.

“X’s and O’s, you can throw them right out the window. The biggest part of my job this year is keeping the team healthy and trying to keep them on a plane where you don’t lose any of their adrenaline or just fade out,” Tortorella explained.

Torts realizes the need to be focused mentally and physically and will be emphasizing rest and recovery on off days as opposed to concentrating on practicing.

“My biggest thought is recovery. We have to be careful how much we force-feed them here. It’s about gauging your team and understanding where they are physically and mentally as they go through this,” Tortorella admitted.

To his credit, Tortorella knows he has to be more open-minded than normal and has been monitoring the players and communicating with team leaders to judge how the team is responding.

“Our [regular training] camp, there are some things that go on mentally. It’s not so much the physical conditioning; it’s developing what you have mentally. It’s a mindset that you try and develop and we are minus that right now,” Torts admitted.

On the plus side, Coach Tortorella realizes that his team is better equipped to reach that mindset now than they were a couple of years ago.

“Before you can win, you need to believe that you are going to win. So I think the mental aspect is the biggest thing that has improved the last two or three years and that starts with a tremendous leadership group.”

Last year the Rangers showed that they could compartmentalize the extra distractions last season (e.g. the Europe trip and the Winter Classic) and focus on the job at hand.

Part of that job will be finding the right line combinations as the team looks to integrate Rick Nash on the top two lines and find the right places for youngsters Carl Hagelin and Chris Kreider. With the Reader’s Digest version of training camp and a condensed schedule that leaves little time for practice, the Rangers line combinations will have to be a work in progress during the season.

We all know that Tortorella is not shy about mixing up his line combinations, but he is in a Catch-22 situation in terms of giving his combinations enough time to gel versus needing to make changes in order to produce wins.

THE USA’s victory in the U-20 Tournament in Ufa, Russia might provide the foundation for the Rangers during the sprint that is the 2012-2013 season. When the American team struggled offensively, Coach Phil Housely did not hesitate to make a couple of line changes that revitalized the Americans’ offense as the tournament progressed. That newfound offense, a solid defense, stellar special team play, and superb goaltending paved the way to Gold for the USA.

The Rangers have the offensive potential to fill out two scoring lines. Their defense and goaltending already produced a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. The biggest question will be the special teams.

The addition of Nash is not going to make a bit of difference to the power play if the team is not willing to get shots on goal AND create traffic in FRONT of the net.

The Rangers outstanding penalty killing is sure to be a work in progress as the Blueshirts find ways to replace the losses of Artem Anisimov, Brandon Dubinsky, Ruslan Fedotenko, and Brandon Prust. The team will have to turn to newcomers Nash and Jeff Halpern as well as development from the likes of Hagelin and Kreider.

Even with the Rangers having to factor in the recently waived Wade Redden’s contract, the team has about $4 million in salary cap space to play with at the NHL trade deadline. I would expect the Rangers to look to add some depth at forward – perhaps adding a little offense to the third/fourth lines. I would not be surprised to see them look for an upgrade on defense by adding a veteran who as a third pair blueliner.

The Rangers should finish fourth in the Eastern Conference with the Penguins claiming the top spot. While the Rangers might sit fourth, it is entirely possible that they could have the second-best record in the East.

As we saw last year, playoff seeding is not always the be-all and end-all in determining playoff success. The Rangers are a team that is built to succeed in the playoffs. If the Rangers can find a way to average three goals per game come the playoffs, they will be raising Lord Stanley’s Cup. Last season, the Rangers scored just 43 goals in 20 playoff games and ended up just six wins shy of a championship.

BRANDON MASHINTER

The New York Rangers and San Jose Sharks swapped AHL forwards as the Blueshirts sent Tommy Grant and a 2014 conditional 7th round draft pick to San Jose for Brandon Mashinter. The 6-foot-4 and 230 pound LW was San Jose’s sixth rated prospect in 2012 Future Watch edition of The Hockey News. Here is what THN said about him: “Missed a chunk of season with a concussion; More than a fighter, though.”

The 24-year-old has not registered a point in 13 NHL games (17 PIM) – all of them played during the 2010-2011 season. In 206 AHL games (all with Worcester), Mashinter scored 52 goals and 51 assists with 280 PIM. This season, he has two goals and three assists in 30 games (44 PIM).

“This should be good for him, and I hope he does well,” Worcester coach Roy Sommer said to Bill Ballou of the Worcester Telegram. “We’ll miss him but he’s a big, strong kid, he can skate, he can shoot, and he can fight. You know he’s got more than two goals in him.”

The Hockey News offers the following Scouting Report on Mashinter:

ASSETS: Is a huge physical specimen that can intimidate opponents. Brings a lot of
physicality to the rink, and also boasts some offensive ability.

FLAWS: Is still a somewhat raw winger in many areas of the game, so he needs more
work on his overall play. Must specifically work on his defense.

CAREER POTENTIAL: Massive physical winger with a little upside.

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