by Paul West
After an up and down season in which they seemed at times to struggle to score more than once a game, the New York Rangers have put together a strong finish to climb into the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference of the 2013 NHL Playoffs. There are compelling reasons to believe they might repeat their deep playoff run of 20112, but that will depend on the continuation of recent trends.
First, and perhaps most importantly, the Rangers depend on goalie Henrik Lundqvist to remain stellar. The defending Vezina Trophy winner has had yet another outstanding season, keeping the Blueshirts in game after game at times when it seemed they could only win 2-1 or 3-2. Lundqvist’s performance has been clutch all season, down to the very last regular season game in which he took the all-time Rangers lead in shutouts as the Rangers blanked the Devils 4-0. This final game secured the 6 seed, mere days after their playoff entry was still in question. If Henrik can continue to play to form, the Rangers will have at least the proverbial puncher’s chance whenever he takes the ice.
A close second in importance is their increased energy and assertiveness on offense. Recent pickups Mats Zuccarrello, Derick Brassard and Ryane Clowe have helped them in this department, providing size and forechecking (in Zuccarrello’s case excellent forechecking minus the size) to a team that spent much of the season playing ‘dump chase’ and trying to work perfect passing schemes up the ice. This isn’t to say that the Rangers’ ability to string together beautiful passes is worthless, but sometimes you have to work the corners, camp out in front of the net and pressure the goalie with obstructed views and rebounds. Which provides a suitable segue to the Rangers’ next must-have for the postsesaon: a solid power play.
Despite finishing 23rd in the league (it sometimes seemed worse than that, as they often went entire power plays with one or two shots on goal), the Rangers’ power play seemed to improve down the home stretch. Instead of constant over-passing, they seemed more intent on putting the puck on net, creating traffic in front and taking advantage of loose pucks and rebounds. Brassard seemed to be a big difference-maker on the power play, seeing increased ice time down the stretch.
An important key to the Rangers’ resurgent offense has been the play of star forward Rick Nash and young center Derek Stepan. Acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets last summer, Nash has displayed a complete game. His play in the offensive zone has allowed his line mates more freedom to attack the front of the net, wait for rebounds and drift into passing lanes; he’s been a pleasant surprise as a two-way player, especially for an elite-level scorer; and his affinity for third period goals has been a huge part of their playoff push. As for Stepan, the playmaking center scored 18 goals in 48 games, and had a knack for being in the right place at the right time all year.
Last but not least, the Rangers’ most important aspect seems to be their energy and assertiveness. Last season, when they finished with 109 points and came within two games of the Stanley Cup, the Blueshirts often seemed to be playing downhill, as the saying goes; they pushed the puck aggressively, controlling the tempo and putting pressure on opposing goaltenders. Many times this season, they have seemed to lack conviction, executing memorable touch passes and scoring on beautiful combinations but often getting pushed around and losing 50/50 pucks on both halves of the ice. When they play with the proper amount of jump in their step, the Rangers are as good as any team in the NHL. Captain Ryan Callahan continues to lead by example in this category at both ends of the ice, scoring huge goals (including the overtime goal that sent them to the playoffs) and winning key possessions and blocking shots and showing extraordinary energy on every shift.
The Rangers are a season removed from being a dominant force, and they have the same components in place–along with a few key additions–to go on a long postseason run. Climbing to the 6 seed will give them more chances to feed off of the Madison Square Garden crowds in later rounds, despite the conventional wisdom that seeding matters less in the NHL postseason than in other sports.
With a resurgent offense, improved energy, a consistently strong defense (anchored by Dan Girardi, who has a consistent knack for doing exactly the right thing in the clutch) and perhaps the best goaltender in hockey, the New York Rangers are an extremely dangerous team and have the potential to repeat their Stanley Cup performance of 1994.