GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- For weeks now they've been the best sports story that nobody was talking about enough in New York. This week marked one month since the Rangers began playing out of their minds after losing goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who took a puck to the throat. Yet it took the ransom the Rangers paid at Monday's trade deadline in players and draft picks to make a lot of people really take notice and say: Whoa, the Rangers are all-in. This feels like '94. They're going for the Stanley Cup!
The truth is, the Rangers were already on the kind of tear that should've earned them a reprieve from the usual we'll-check-back-with- you-at-playoff-time treatment NHL teams often endure. They deserve better than their current fate of still being snowed under a little by A-Rod's latest saga, Phil Jackson's baffling ineptitude with the Knicks, the news that the Jets are back to expressing interest in Darrelle Revis, or Revis is back to gaming the Jets -- take your pick.
Rangers winger Marty St. Louis, a 39-year-old former Cup winner with Tampa Bay who's seen it all, says one of the best things about this Rangers team is "it's always a different guy leading us every night. Six, seven, eight guys are on top of their game and it pulls the whole team through. Then another night, it's six or eight other guys. We knew when Hank went out, we had to collectively pick it up. And that's what we did."
But the Rangers were always the New York team with the best chance to win a title right here, right now. No team in the area -- not even the chronically unappreciated Islanders, who are having a stirring season of their own -- is better.
The Isles are very good. Their long-suffering fans will pelt you with fish sticks if you dare suggest otherwise.
But the Isles are not as good in goal as the Rangers are with Lundqvist back, even if the Isles do lead the season series. They're not as deep and talented on the blue line now that the Rangers landed Keith Yandle, a defenseman with the sort of offensive skills that could finally cure the Rangers' sketchy power play.
And if the Rangers' power play finally does becomes a bear? We'll be down to nitpicking about how the Rangers could be better at winning faceoffs, because there won't be a whole lot else to wish for when everybody starts the playoffs 20 games or so from now.
So fire up the Rangers bandwagon. Send out for extra benches and chairs.
The Rangers are that good. They know it. And their 10-2-2 record without Lundqvist just underscored it more.
"I thought we were a Stanley Cup team before [the trade moves]," defenseman Marc Staal told the New York Post's Larry Brooks after Yandle made his debut Monday night.
Referring now to how Mats Zuccarello agreed to a four-year, $18 million contract over the weekend when he might've earned more elsewhere, same as Lundqvist and Staal and Dan Girardi did before him, Staal added, "The group that's been here the last few years, we feel that we have unfinished business.
"We've put in a lot of effort over the years in turning this into an elite team, which is what I think we've become. Now we want to win, and we want to win here and we want to win together."
Lundqvist was nowhere to be seen again Tuesday, though his workout clothes and pads hung in his locker at the Rangers' training facility in Westchester. Just 14 hours earlier, Cam Talbot, Lundqvist's backup, had another solid game and the Rangers pulled off an impressive 4-1 win against a Nashville team that came into the Garden leading the league in points. But now, nobody was sleepwalking around or griping about how soon this full-on workout came around or the daunting five-game road stretch that now lies ahead. Quite the opposite.
The Rangers' practice was brisk and precise and crackling with energy. It was alive with shouting and joking and comical celebrations when someone won a drill. You could tell this is a team that doesn't just win and bleed together -- they genuinely like each other.
Later, even head coach Alain Vigneault got into the mix, joking that Zuccarello was given the day off because he had -- "I, um ... don't know how you say it in English -- a boo-boo?" Vigneault ventured with a smile.
What a change from the bone-grinding John Tortorella days, when everything seemed delivered with a rebuke and a scowl and the season felt like a grim march even when the Rangers were winning.
"When you win like we are," St. Louis said, "everyone feeds off it."
Rangers forward Rick Nash independently said the same thing as he sat a few lockers down the row, tearing the tape off his skates. With 38 goals, Nash is pushing Alex Ovechkin for the NHL goal-scoring lead. Like Staal, Nash says that as nice as it was to get to last year's Stanley Cup finals opposite the Los Angeles Kings, "there's still the sense we didn't finish the job."
"In a way, it's tough to say that," Nash continued, "because when we got to training camp this year, AV [Vigneault] said our main message was: 'Forget about everything that happened last year. It's over, it's a new year, it's a new team, it's new players.' But you know, just getting that taste of playoff hockey, then getting to the finals, seeing that light at the end of the tunnel -- and then not finishing the job?"
Nash shakes his head. "We definitely know there's still more to accomplish," he says.
The Rangers now start a demanding five-game stretch of road games -- at Detroit on Wednesday, at Chicago on Sunday, out to Nassau Coliseum to face the Isles on Tuesday, then off to Washington and Buffalo.
But given how well the Rangers have played without Lundqvist, they seem beyond the point of being scared of much of anything.
They had a little quiet swagger even before obtaining Yandle, whom GM Glen Sather compared to Nash because of his ability to change a game. There's a very good reason Sather admittedly coveted Yandle for so long. As Nash explains, "The way our system is set up, our offense comes from our defensive play."
The Rangers' 3.11 goals per game was already second best in the league. Now, by adding Yandle, their three-deep set of defenseman pairings may be the NHL's best.
Lundqvist is still at least two weeks from coming back. Yet Nash said he was looking forward to this tough five-game road trip because, he says, "it comes at a good time."
Huh? The Rangers and the Islanders are neck-and-neck for the Metropolitan Division lead. They're trying to hold off Pittsburgh.
"But we've added a couple new guys," Nash says, "and this is a good chance to maybe have a team dinner together or something out on the road. A nice chance to jell even more."
An ordinary team might tell you a five-game road trip never comes at a good time. But right now, the Rangers are an extraordinary team. Fire up the bandwagon. Spread the word.