The New York Rangers are a team hitting on all cylinders going into the playoffs. Preseason expectations were worrisome for the Blueshirts and the Rangers got off to an unsurprisingly tough start under new coach Alain Vigneault. However, as the season progressed, the team made some major moves and began to finally buy into Vigneault’s system. They are playing like a team with supreme confidence and chemistry moving into the postseason.
New York Rangers
(5th Eastern Conference, 2nd Metropolitan Division)
Preseason Expectations: Early on in the preseason, fans and critics alike knew that the early part of the Rangers season would be tough considering the injuries to then-captain Ryan Callahan and LW Carl Hagelin and the amount of time it would take for the team to adjust to a new coach. Going into this season, the biggest strength of the team remained between the pipes in former Vezina Trophy winner and always consistent Henrik Lundqvist. The defense remained a strength as well, as they returned all six starting defensemen from a year ago. The biggest question mark for the team was whether or not the forwards for the Rangers would be able to produce under Vigneault’s puck heavy possession style offense. Brad Richards had a rough shortened season last year and ended up finishing the final two playoff games on the bench as a healthy scratch, while Rick Nash struggled to find his full potential on the Rangers.
How they got here: After starting the season with an October record of 5-7 (being outscored by a combined 27 goals in those losses), the Blueshirts became a team of zero consistency. They went 9-6 in November, 6-8 in December and finally 12-6 going into the Olympic break. After trading the ‘heart and soul’ and captain of the Rangers Ryan Callahan to Tampa Bay for 38-year-old Martin St. Louis, fans were at a loss for words as the move appeared to have an adverse effect of “sparking” the offense. The Rangers offense, along with St. Louis, struggled mightily after the trade as St. Louis went scoreless in his first seven games with the team. However, lately, the Blueshirts – along with St. Louis – have started clicking offensively. They clinched a playoff berth with a 4-1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes paired with a New Jersey Devils loss. St. Louis racked up three assists in the win, which almost matched his previous total of four over the past 16 games. The Rangers ended up on the season with a second place finish in the Metropolitan Division and sealed up a home-ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs. St. Louis will play a vital role in the Blueshirts postseason success, so fans hope to see this current hot streak that he and the team are on continue.
Key Players: G Henrik Lundqvist, LW Marty St. Louis, D Ryan McDonagh, LW Mats Zuccarello
Mats Zuccarello will also be a key player for the Rangers this postseason and he has shined on the top line for New York. Zuccarello leads the team in total points with 58 and is playing at the highest level of his short career, setting record highs in both goals and assists. Zuccarello will be playing alongside C Brad Richards and LW Martin St. Louis in the playoffs and with all three players clicking on all cylinders, this line has ultimate scoring potential going into the playoffs.
Another key to the Rangers regular-and post-season success was goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. Lundqvist performed brilliantly again this season posting a 32-24-5 record to go with a 2.39 GAA and .920 save percentage. These numbers appear to be business as usual for the “King” as he also posted five shutouts. Although, if a reporter was to ask why he was so successful this season, there is no doubt he would acknowledge the play of his team and first before ever taking the spotlight upon himself- especially in the case of Defenseman Ryan McDonagh.
McDonagh, who has not been known for his offensive prowess, could easily be the number one reason why the Rangers are in the playoffs this season. After becoming a one-man wrecking crew for the Rangers during a late season winning streak, he helped the team leap-frog from wildcard hopefuls to second place in their division. McDonagh during that span racked up seven points in five games, including three game-winning goals. However, moving into the playoffs, the Rangers will need another key player in Rick Nash to perform at his highest levels if they have a shot at winning the Cup this year. Nash leads the team in goals this season, but in recent times with the Rangers had seen his postseason production take a dive. In 16 playoff games with the New York, Nash has just one goal and five total points. That production will need to significantly increase if the Rangers hope to make it past the Flyers in the first round.
Major Moves: With just hours left in the trade line this season, the Rangers pulled off a move that would change the team’s future path for the rest of the year. The St. Louis-Callahan trade was a major move pulled by GM Glen Sather that appeared to hurt the New York Rangers chances of making the postseason at first, but eventually it helped them seal a home-ice advantage over Metropolitan division foes the Philadelphia Flyers. Callahan on the Rangers embodied the strength and physicality that fans have been accustomed of Rangers teams in recent years, so when they traded him for a 5’8” two-time scoring champion- who also happens to be 38-years-old- the shock of the move was not easy to shake off. However, if St. Louis can shake off the rust and find his fit into this system (which he and Nash both look to be doing recently), the offensive juggernaut that is Marty St. Louis will be a game-changer for the Blueshirts. St. Louis and the rest of the Rangers had struggled mightily on the power play before their big win over the Carolina Hurricanes going a measly 5-for-52 in a 17-game span. Hopefully this recent surge production out of Nash and St. Louis will spruce up this power play, as it will need to be more successful in order to win in the playoffs.
Who they will face in the first round: The Blueshirts will face the Philadelphia Flyers in a first round matchup that is sure to not disappoint. The two teams tied their season series against each other at two games apiece, both taking their wins on home-ice. Lundqvist appeared to be the difference in the Rangers two wins stopping 79 of 81 shots. Lundqvist posted a 2-1 record against the Flyers with a .943 save percentage and a 2.00 GAA. Goaltender for the Flyers, Steve Mason, will also be a key player for Philadelphia in this playoff series. In two wins against the Rangers, Mason posted a .955 save percentage and a 1.50 GAA. Mason was seen leaving the ice in Saturday’s game with an apparent upper-body injury. If Mason cannot go in the opening round, the Flyers will counter with a struggling Ray Emery. Although the Rangers have the home-ice advantage, this season they have not exactly been a pillar of good play at home having posting a 20-17-4 record. However, the streaking Rangers are 7-1-2 in their last 10 games and are 4-1 in their last five games at home.
How they will fare: Going into this opening series, the Rangers will rely heavily on the veteran experience of Martin St. Louis- who has a Stanley Cup under his belt- and the solid goaltending of Henrik Lundqvist. The Flyers are going to be no easy task for the Blueshirts, so expect there to be plenty of fireworks and big hits in this series that could easily stretch to a seventh game. However, with the Rangers currently streaking in the right direction to go along with a home-ice advantage and a “King” between the pipes, the Blueshirts will prove to be too much for the Flyers to overcome in a seven game series… especially if Mason is ruled out.
Rangers win series 4-2
Conn Smythe Prediction:
If the New York Rangers win the Stanley Cup this year, it will be because of two possible players: Henrik Lundqvist and Martin St. Louis. Lundqvist has the potential to lift his team single handedly from the depths and throw them on his back and carry them to victory. Lundqvist has shown his ability to do so as recently as the last Olympic break when he carried an injury-laden Sweden team all the way to a Gold Medal match. If “King” Henrik lives up to that name and his potential, look for the Conn Smythe to be in his back-pocket. Another player that could vie for the award would be St. Louis. If St. Louis- who has struggled in a New York Rangers uniform- gets comfortable and turns it on all of a sudden, Marty could be the biggest offensive game-changer on the ice… especially considering his window to hoist Lord Stanley again is rapidly closing.
Commentary by Ryne Vyles