This season is proving difficult to define for the New York Rangers. The line between success and disappointment feels indistinct.
The Rangers are no strangers to playoff hockey, having failed to qualify for the postseason just once since the 2005-06 season, but with little to show for it.
Once again, the Garden-faithful are wondering if this year will be different. If, this year, the Rangers finally have the talent to make a run at the Stanley Cup.
Or whether this is much of the same old recipe that continues to spell early postseason exits year after year.
The Rangers (41-30-4, 86 points), second in the Metropolitan Division and winners of seven of their past nine, currently hold the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference playoff race. A solid, if not merely foreseeable, campaign by most accounts.
After all—nobody expected the incorporation of a vastly different system under a new head coach to lend a seamless transition.
Nobody mistook New York for any sort of goal-scoring juggernaut.
We knew all along it will come down to the play of Henrik Lundqvist and the largely under-appreciated defensive corps battling in front of him.
As for the division, if you predicted New York to finish ahead of the Penguins, you’re either lying or you’re delusional.
Yet, even the most discerning fans seem justifiably frustrated with the overall performance of the playoff-bound Rangers.
So what gives?
The 2013-14 season has had it all. Early season panic, winning streaks, losing streaks, public contract negotiations, roster shuffling, a remarkable failure to protect home-ice and even an inexplicable goaltender controversy.
Fans have bore witness to a consistently inconsistent season of uneven play—down to the period.
The whole year has been an emotional roller coaster highlighted by offensive ineptitude, difficult goodbyes and, thus far, generally disappointing hellos.
Still, pessimism aside, it’s certainly not all bad.
If the season ended today the Rangers would host a first round matchup with the Flyers, a team the Rangers have done a particularly good job of handling in recent years.
Can the Rangers find a way to put it all together in time to make a serious run at their first championship since the magical 1994 season?
Current State of the Rangers
Hockey is a funny game.
Since the 2011-12 season, the Rangers rank 16th in goals-scored (556) while surrendering the fourth fewest goals-against (482).
For years the Rangers have gotten by with grit, strong defense and highly exceptional goaltending. The problem was always scoring goals, not preventing them.
An issue Glen Sather has infamously and repeatedly failed to address in the past by recruiting former stars with little left in the tank. He’s taken a more prudent approach of late, developing a core of homegrown talent and, usually, breaking the bank only to enlist the services of the younger, more proven commodities around the league.
When the Blueshirts acquired Rick Nash in 2012 they landed the most sought after offensive star available. A 28-year-old forward, boasting five 30-goal seasons and even two 40-goal seasons throughout the course his nine year career.
Same old story. A team-wide inability to put the puck in the net.
Nash’s tenure in New York can, at best, be described as up and down.
The 2013-14 Rangers still fall in the lower half of the league (18th) in goal-scoring, more importantly.
Just in time for the playoff push.
St. Louis has amassed a total of 391 points since 2009—the most among all NHL players over that span.
|Martin St. Louis||2009||2014||364||131||260||391|
But even the generally unmatched offensive prowess of St. Louis has mysteriously been stymied upon arriving on Broadway.
After 16 games, St. Louis has posted just four points (one goal, three assists) in a Rangers sweater.
The team doesn’t seem to have any problem generating offense, strangely. The trouble has come with converting that offense into goals.
New York has averaged 33 shots per game, the third highest total in the NHL, and somehow managed to defy the typically strong correlation between shots and goals-scored in the process.
Is it a personnel-issue or is it a fluke? Maybe it’s just dumb puck-luck.
The road to the Stanley Cup is paved with most of the highest powered offenses the league has to offer. Should Rangers forwards fail to hit their stride, you can book another premature exit.
Keys to a Cup Run
Depth is what separates this Rangers team from those of years past.
But the breadth of this year’s playoff run remains in the balance, hinging on a variety of factors. That begins with a healthy roster.
The Rangers good fortune caught an ineluctable snare when the injury bug finally hit, after a long and relatively injury-free year as a team overall.
Is Kreider’s injury surmountable? Perhaps. Though, a team desperate for goals can ill afford to lose any offensive firepower, really.
The same can not be said for the potentially calamitous loss of McDonagh, however.
A Norris Trophy candidate who, in addition to thriving in his role as defensive lynchpin, has evolved into a true offensive threat—and the de facto team-captain in Callahan’s absence.
Nash endorses McDonagh for next NYR captain – Newsday http://t.co/vCZuTLfiyf
— NY Rangers News (@NRangersNews) March 20, 2014
Without him, they would have been doomed to obscurity long before the playoffs ever arrived.
The Rangers have garnered contributions from all over the roster lately, despite the struggles of their stars. Mats Zuccarello has 12 points in his past 15 games. For Derek Stepan, 19 points in 19 games.
Whether or not they can stay hot will go a long way in determining the extent of their postseason success.
As for Lundqvist, everybody knows his career regular season save percentage (.920) pales in comparison to—oh, wait—”The King” owns an identical save percentage in 67 postseason starts.
Business as usual.
Lundqvist remains the least of New York’s concerns despite any curiously steadfast, preconceived notions you might have.
In 2011-12, Rangers finished first in the Eastern Conference standings. This team is better.
In Cam Talbot, New York have a promising–albeit relatively untested—young goaltender ready to spell the historically overworked Lundqvist.
In St. Louis, they have one more elite scorer for the opposing team to contain.
In Derick Brassard, Brad Richards, Carl Hagelin, Benoit Pouliot, Stepan, Zuccarello, Kreider and McDonagh—the Rangers have more secondary scoring than ever, with 10 Rangers notching double-digit goal totals.
Special teams is the final missing ingredient.
In the two previous seasons the Rangers finished with the 23rd best rate on the man-advantage. They’ve improved to 13th this year, but an 18.2 scoring percentage isn’t exactly inspiring.
Significantly more promising is the fact that they own the fifth ranked penalty-kill, to go along with the second most shorthanded goals (10) in the league.
Sure, it’s a start.
But Nash must limit his stretches of invisible play if New York is to make any real noise.
St. Louis will need to start finding the back of the net, and soon, if the Blueshirts are to achieve hockey’s ultimate goal.
It’s essential that the power-play is frequently able capitalize on the man-advantage if the Rangers hope to outlast their opponents in the NHL’s grueling marathon of a postseason.
Hockey might be the most difficult of the four major sports to accurately forecast, especially come playoff time.
It’s the rare sport where there’s no such thing as an easy series. It’s the only sport to ever crown an eighth seed champion.
One thing’s certain. The team’s core has experienced the heartbreak of leaving the postseason empty-handed. If they fall short this time, it won’t be for lack of desire.
And if Nash, St. Louis and Lundqvist happen to get on roll—the rest of the NHL better watch out.