Heading into the 2011-12 season, Henrik Lundqvist felt like this Rangers team might have something special.
"It looked good on paper," Lundqvist said, "but we still have to work hard and get it done every night."
More often than not, the Rangers have. That's why they're heading into their two-day Christmas break on top of the Atlantic Division standings.
"It feels like we're more mature this year," Lundqvist said after the Rangers took care of the Flyers again, rolling to a 4-2 win over their hated rivals on Friday night at Madison Square Garden in a precursor to what should be a dandy of a Winter Classic between the two NHL heavyweights in 10 days.
"We'll have a great game or a couple great games, and we still come out the next night expecting a lot from ourselves. In the past, maybe we got a little more satisfied and a little more inconsistent. This year, I think we demand more from ourselves in the room here. That's what I am happy about right now: the way we show up every night."
Coach John Tortorella has been preaching the "take it one game at a time" cliché to his team all season. And they've clearly benefited from it. The Rangers are glad to be just one point behind Boston for the top spot in the Eastern Conference, but they aren't satisfied. They can't afford to be. As Tortorella said, there's still plenty of hockey left.
"It's Dec. 23," Tortorella said, sounding like the Grinch who stole his team's swagger following its strong start. "I'm happy with the way we're playing. I'm happy we're getting points early. But they don't give out playoff bids on Dec. 23. There's so much hockey to be played and we've got a lot of things to work on."
By no means have the Rangers been perfect. But each game it seems like they find a way. On Friday night, the Blueshirts didn't get off their first shot until the 5:25 mark of the first period, but they found a way to keep the league's top-scoring team off the scoreboard until they finally began to figure it out offensively.
Two second-period shots by little-known rookie blueliner Stu Bickel were deflected into the net, Lundqvist stood tall when he had to -- the All-Star finished with 28 saves -- and Marian Gaborik scored his NHL-best 21st goal of the season on a breakaway to give the Rangers a commanding 3-0 lead 1:48 into the third.
With the outcome well in hand, chants of "First place!" and "Flyers s---!" from raucous sellout crowd of 18,200 followed.
The Rangers' defense has had to endure a bevy of injuries -- No. 1 blueliner Marc Staal has yet to play this season as a result post-concussion syndrome -- but they haven't missed a beat. Right now, the Rangers rank third in goals allowed and are 18-0-1 when leading after two periods. They are a disciplined hockey club loaded with depth and talent that has a clear understanding of its identity as a gritty, blue-collar team.
And as of Dec. 23, their results speak for themselves.
"There's something to be said for that," captain Ryan Callahan said of his team's 21-8-4 record. "I think for us, after Christmas break, 30-something games in we're right there at the top and that gives us confidence going forward. With that said, there's still a lot of hockey to be played and we haven't seen our best yet. We're going to have to get better throughout the year."
Coming into this week, the Rangers were hopeful that they could sweep through New Jersey, the Islanders and Philadelphia. They did, with seemingly relative ease.
"We put it into a capsule, as I said a few days ago," Tortorella said. "It was four days, all division games, and we took each day at a time. I'm happy for our players because they get to get away from it for a couple days."
Lundqvist said he plans to relax and enjoy the city with his friends. But by Monday, they'll be back to the grind again. Just the way they like it.
Sporting the Broadway Hat inside the team's posh locker room, Lundqvist was asked if the team was satisfied being in first place on Dec. 23.
"Ask me again in April," he replied.