Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A team that loses two of its top four defensemen for extended periods of time falters, and drops to mediocrity while dealing with the injuries. Oh wait, you didn’t hear that? That’s likely because the Rangers lost two of their top four defensemen, guys that were playing 20+ minutes a night last season, but they kept on trucking along, and now sit just five points away from clinching the home ice in the Eastern Conference.
The Rangers didn’t know what to expect with Marc Staal. Concussions are a tricky beast afterall. Staal missed the first 36 games of the season, an injury that forced several players in the lineup to step up. Ryan McDonagh was moved from his comfortable pairing with Mike Sauer up to the top pair with Dan Girardi, and was one-half of the best shutdown pair in the league while playing 30 minutes a night. Michael Del Zotto was thrust into a top four spot after spending parts of last season in the AHL. The combination of he and Sauer thrived as well. For some reason that bottom pairing rotation between Anton Stralman, Steve Eminger, and Jeff Woywitka wasn’t talked about much.
Then the unthinkable happened: Mike Sauer fell awkwardly after a hit by Dion Phaneuf, and hit his head on the boards. Another top four defenseman out with a concussion. Another gaping hole in the lineup to fill. After a short stint with Eminger (before he went down with an injury), Del Zotto’s new partner wound up being Stralman. The wildcard signing was now forced into playing 20 minutes a night. He thrived, and the Rangers still wouldn’t quit.
Sauer hasn’t been seen or heard from since his concussion in December. The Rangers have been very quiet on that end. But there was that month long period where the Rangers were without both Staal and Sauer, a period in which they played 12 games. The Rangers went 8-3-1 in that span, but not before going 2-2-1 before the Eminger/Woywitka injuries forced Stu Bickel in the lineup later that month. With no Staal, Sauer, or Eminger, the Rangers managed to go 6-1-0 before Staal would return for the Winter Classic.
Something needs to be said for the grit, determination, and the “never say die” attitude this team showed during what could have been a disastrous month. How many teams have lost just one of their top-four defenders and faltered?
The Flyers are a team we can look at, but their offense (3rd in the league in goals scored) masked their defensive flaws when they lost Chris Pronger. The Red Wings went 4-6-2 when Nick Lidstrom went down with an injury in February. Mike Green played in three games between November and January, a period that saw the Caps play sub-.500 hockey. These teams only lost one of their top four, the Rangers lost two.
But yet here we are at the end of March, and the Rangers need just five points in their final five games to clinch home ice advantage until the Stanley Cup Finals. Teams can find a way to use injuries as an excuse for losing. John Tortorella wouldn’t allow his team to do so. That’s what sets the Rangers apart from every other team in this league: there are no excuses, only wins.