When the New York Rangers defeated the Montreal Canadiens in seven games to capture the Eastern Conference last playoffs, most were taken aback since few would have called the Blueshirts Stanley Cup contenders. Though they were handily taken by the Los Angeles Kings in five games, the Rangers didn’t do what many teams tend to do once losing in the final, which is to panic. However, the first quarter of this season might be evidence to the contrary with them having dropped 14 of their first 25 games. Not a start you’d expect from a recent NHL finalist or, for that matter, a team that hopes to reach the finals again.
This slow start didn’t seem to phase bench boss Alain Vigneault who then started tweaking the lines and re-solidifying his team’s foundation that consists of a revitalized Rick Nash, a stalwart in net in Henrik Lundqvist and an underrated Derek Stepan who was out for the first month with a broken leg. There has also been subtle though constant work being down in the offices of the Rangers to get them back to the final stages of the playoffs that has brought about the tying down of blue line lynchpin Marc Staal. Now the storyline revolving around the Rangers has evolved from Martin St. Louis’s trade and Rick Nash being such a disappointment to who can beat the red-hot Blueshirts?
As we pass the halfway point of the 2014-15 NHL season, the Rangers look like potential contenders and might earn another chance to hoist Lord Stanley's cup. Here are 10 reasons the Rangers could make back to the Stanley Cup Final this postseason.
10. They don’t need home ice advantage
So far this season the Blueshirts have been putting up wins regardless of the arena in which they're playing. Sitting on an away record of 13-8-1, which almost mirrors their home stats of 14-7-3, suggests that success in the playoffs will not be greatly affected by whether they gain home-ice advantage or not. Would they prefer it? Of course. But it must be comforting for the Rangers to know that their chances of winning on the road are about the same as at home.
This does not mean they hold the best road record in the league. They only sit 12th when it comes on the road. However, seven of the teams ahead of them are in the Western Conference, which means the Rangers wouldn’t have to square off against any of them in the playoffs until the Final. Out of the teams in the East with a better away record than the Rangers, the only team to consistently beat the Blueshirts is the New York Islanders. So, during a deep playoff run, away games shouldn’t cause their confidence to waver.
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9 Rick Nash
Rich Nash was heaped with criticism for the Rangers loss to the Los Angeles Kings in last year’s Stanley Cup Final. Failing to produce a single point in the five-game series, and only 10 during the Rangers’ 25-game playoff run, Nash might even agree that he deserved the vitriol.
However, this year he has been back to his former scoring ways and is on pace for his third 40-goal season. Many are saying his performance this year might be worthy of the Hart come awards night. A possible excuse for number 61’s lack of production during last year’s playoffs is that he’d only been in the postseason twice before. Nash could shrivel up during this year’s Cup run, though his numbers and performance from this year seem to predict otherwise. He is currently sitting second in the league in goals with 28, tied with Tyler Seguin of the Dallas Stars. And now with a full playoff run under his belt, he may have gained the strength and experience to help his team reach the final again.
8 Henrik Lundqvist
Goalies can steal you games; there’s no doubt about that. But few can steal as many and carry a team as deep into the playoffs as Lundqvist can and has. Case in point- last year he was arguably the main reason the Rangers met the Kings for Lord Stanley's Cup. This five-time Vezina nominee is again in top form with five shutouts, a .921 SV% and a 2.26 GAA, which makes him arguably one of the top-10 goalies this season. The remarkable thing about Lundqvist is his consistency. In eight playoff runs, he has a .922 goals against average, which is .02 percent higher than his average for his entire NHL career. As long as Lundqvist stays healthy, the Rangers have a good chance of making their second straight appearance in the finals.
7 Stingy Defence
The Rangers currently sit second in fewest goals against with 111, only behind the Montreal Canadiens who have 108 goals against. Much of the credit would appear to belong to Lundqvist, though there is a more deserving candidate: head coach Alain Vigneault. The Rangers allowed at least four goals in nine of their first 24 games this year. That’s not good, and if that trend had continued they would be nowhere near second for fewest goals against and possibly sitting outside of a playoff spot.
Since losing 6-1 to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Dec. 1, the Rangers have not allowed more than three goals against in a single game and have 17 wins with three losses. During that impressive 20-game span, Vigneault has been constantly tweaking his lines and, most importantly to this topic, finding strategies to choke up passing lanes as well as suppressing scoring chances. They are beating arguably better teams night in and night out, and that has much to do with how Vigneault curbed their goal differential.
6 Marc Staal
If Marc Staal was not signed to the six-year, $34.2 million contract recently, general manager Glen Sather probably would of had to move him. That would have caused a pretty deep cut to their roster as star defencemen are hard to come by, especially in the cap-strapped NHL. Some analysts believe that he could have gotten more on the open market, but he decided to stay in New York. That is good news for the team’s backend. They will be able to keep their two defence pairings that have specialized in shutting down their opponents for most of this season. He’s had a great year so far and with contract negotiations off his mind, which rumor has it caused him great stress, his second half might be even brighter.
5 Weaker Conference
The East is far weaker than the West. This is very important come playoffs. Were the Rangers the second-best team in the league last year? Arguably, no. Would they have made it to the final if they were in the Western Conference? Still, the answer is probably no. But in the East, the inferior of the two conferences, there are few teams that are as consistently good as the Rangers have been this season. This doesn’t mean they have a better chance at winning the Cup this year than last year. Predictions have it teams like Chicago, Anaheim, or even L.A. if they squeak in, will again represent the West in the finals, which doesn’t bode well for the Rangers to take home the Cup this spring. However, being in the East greatly increases the Blueshirts' likelihood of making it to the final round.
4 Glen Sather's Proactive Nature
The Rangers have a salary-cap problem. Everyone knows it, and the recent signing of Marc Staal to a six-year deal worth $5.7 million per year might just exasperate the problem. However, some critics are lauding the signing by GM Glen Sather as one that secures the Rangers' Cup contention. But the true test for the veteran GM will come this trade deadline. He’s going to have to move salary and the two big names on the chopping block are left-winger Carl Hagelin and right-winger Mats Zuccarello, two prime pieces that I’m sure he’d love to keep. Unfortunately, what the Rangers need is a two-way center who can win faceoffs. Fortunately, they have Sather at the helm. Chances are, fan-favorite Zuccarello will sign for less than he’s worth as he’s been quoted as saying that he’d rather stay in New York for less money than play somewhere else for more.
That leaves the ever-talented Hagelin who may need to be traded off, possibly to the pitiful Toronto Maple Leafs for a two-way, faceoff-winning center in Nazem Kadri who desperately needs a change in scenery. Whatever comes trade deadline, this is Sather’s team and based on the moves he’s made to get this team to where it is and the fact that he didn’t panic after last year’s regrettable finish in the finals, the team appears to be in comfortable, albeit nicotine-stained, hands.
3 Derek Stepan
Centre Derek Stepan was still recovering from a broken leg when the season began and he wouldn’t dress for the Blueshirts until Nov. 8 in a closely contested loss to the Leafs, 5-4. However, his injury hasn't seemed to have slowed him down, as he is the team’s assist leader with 24. He has been the team’s most consistent player since returning to the lineup, a fact that most people might have overlooked considering the turnaround year Nash has been having. His playmaking abilities give the Rangers something that they have been lacking; secondary scoring, which is necessary or any contending team.
2 A Strengthening Power Play
On paper their power play numbers might not seem like much. Sitting 11th in the league at 19.6 percent isn’t greatly enviable, even though it is an uptick from last year’s 18.2 percent. However, Nick Mercadante over at Blueshirtbanter.com shows that duing the Rangers’ recent winning ways they have more power play shots for 60 minutes than any other team in the NHL with 68.6.
There is now talk that Marc Staal might have earned his spot back on the first power play unit, forcing Dan Boyle down to the second unit, and though he is second in power play goals with 4, there is heightened pressure on Rick Nash to keep on producing. If the Rangers can keep working on their power play and have its effectiveness continue into the playoffs, their chances of making to the final seem much better.
The Rangers' slow start to the 2014-15 NHL campaign could be chalked up to losing in the final in five games. Unlike others who have suffered from a similar fate (see the Vancouver Canucks), the Rangers didn’t panic and start dismantling when they weren’t earning wins that they should have. Their recent western road trip shows that they were right to stay the course and that they can beat arguably better teams any night of the week. The recent come-from-behind victory over the Kings during the California road trip is pretty good evidence that they are looking for vengeance for last year -- and that they are capable of it.
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