Expectations no longer apply. Past is not necessarily prologue, even if an old coach named Billy (Toe) Shakespeare once wrote that it is.
And if perception is reality, the perception of the Rangers 50 games into the season is also the stark reality that the Blueshirts are in for a fight to the finish to merely qualify for the playoffs.
If you take a look at the names on the respective rosters, there is no way on earth the Devils should be within two points of their more celebrated and accomplished opponents from the other side of the river.
Yet, thatâ€™s the fact following New Jerseyâ€™s 3-2 victory on home ice in Tuesdayâ€™s Battle of the Hudson in a match in which the Devils competed all over the ice and for every puck and seemed hungrier and more desperate than the Rangers over the cumulative 60 minutes.
An unassailable work ethic â€” plus Cory Schneider, who outplayed Henrik Lundqvist in this one â€” has elevated a Devils team that seemed bound for prime territory in Entry Draft Lottery Land into a mad scramble for a playoff berth.
Seriously, this is a team that throws out Tyler Kennedy onto the power play. More to the point, this is a team that went 2-for-2 with the man advantage, including David Schlemkoâ€™s winner at 11:14 of the third period, while the more famous names on the other side conspired to go 0-for-4.
Derek Stepan â€” who took a mind-numbing hooking penalty 175 feet away from his own net with 5.9 seconds remaining in a first period that the Rangers had dominated while holding a 1-0 lead, and who was in the box when New Jersey tied the match at 1:34 of the second â€” twice chose to use the word â€œcompeteâ€ while addressing the press after the match.
â€œWe have to find the way to get ourselves hungry and make sure we compete in the right way in the third period,â€ the alternate captain said after the Blueshirts were unable to protect a 2-1 lead they had gained at 2:06 of the final period, yielding the tying goal just 67 seconds later. â€œWe have to be able to compete after a goal.
â€œWe have to find the way to get the job done.â€
I asked Stepan about his use of the â€œcompeteâ€ word, asked him if he thought the Rangers had failed to compete hard enough or intelligently enough.
â€œSome of both,â€ he said.
I asked him if he believed his team had been outworked.
â€œI think when you saw momentum swings, one team worked harder than the other,â€ he replied. â€œBut work ethic starts with our group.
â€œThatâ€™s been one of the strengths weâ€™ve had as a team the last few years â€” our compete level. We have to have that. Especially coming right after the break.â€
But even though so many of the names are the same, the product has not been the same through the seasonâ€™s first 50 games. And the warts that have dotted this teamâ€™s performance this season were on display again in this one.
There were the inferior results of the specialty teams. There was Dan Girardi toasted by Joseph Blandisiâ€™s wide speed for that third-period tying score with the Blueshirts caught in a neutral one-line change. There was Lundqvist, who entered with a career 33-14-7 record against the Devils, giving up the short side on that one. And there were too many invisible men.
Dan Boyle was in for Dylan McIlrath, because thatâ€™s the way it is with Alain Vigneault making the lineup decisions. And Boyle, fresh off a weekâ€™s rest through the All-Star break, had a pretty darn good game.
But the issue now isnâ€™t so much whether McIlrath can get into the top six this season for this coach â€” the rookie might be in for Kevin Klein, who suffered a right-hand injury of unannounced severity late in the third â€” but whether the Blueshirts would do something so undeniably foolish as sacrificing the emerging 23-year-old in a trade for a veteran rental as part of a playoff push.
Similarly, the scalding J.T. Miller, who scored both goals on Tuesday, is playing well enough to become this seasonâ€™s Anthony Duclair.
And what about that first-round draft pick in either 2016 or 2017 that the club still owns? How vulnerable is that if management adopts a hell or high water approach to making the postseason?
The Rangers are in it deep here. A playoff berth is far from assured. What has been so reliable for them the past two years â€” heck, even much of the last four seasons â€” isnâ€™t.
And past is not necessarily prologue.