Lethbridge: Are the New York Rangers built for playoff success?

(Jaszek PL/Flickr)

With just under 20 games left in the regular season, it’s safe to say that the New York Rangers have run away with first place in the Eastern Conference. At the time of this writing, they have a nine point lead on Boston (who they played Sunday afternoon) and Pittsburgh – the teams nearest to them in the Eastern Conference standings.

With a 41-15-6 record, they are just three wins away from equalling their total wins from last season, their highest in the last five years. The team is on pace for about 115 points, which would be the highest team point total in the Eastern Conference since the Washington Capitals went 54-15-13 for 121 points in the 2009-10 season, and the highest ever in Rangers team history. This team, led by first year captain Ryan Callahan, could be the best to play in Madison Square Garden since the squad Mark Messier captained to the Stanley Cup in 1994. That team went 52-24-8.

Considering that the Rangers have managed to sustain this success since mid-December, not relinquishing the Eastern Conference lead in that span, a lengthy playoff stint could be just around the corner.

Expectations were high for the Rangers coming into this season. They were the big winners coming out of the free agent market, signing Brad Richards to a nine-year contract worth $60 million. Many expected Richards, along with the team’s all-star free agent acquisition from two years previous, Marian Gaborik, would lead a rejuvenated charge on Broadway.

While it hasn’t quite worked out that way, the team is none the worse for it. This year has proven to be a showcase for the young players on the Rangers franchise. As previously mentioned, this is Ryan Callahan’s first season as team captain, his fourth season with the team overall. It wouldn’t have been unreasonable to think there would be a decrease in production from Callahan, as he tries to juggle his new responsibilities with trying to be a productive member of the team. Evidently, Callahan has not struggled with this as he has already surpassed his previous career best in goals and points, and just three away from matching his previous best in assists.

As impressive as his offensive production has been, however, Callahan’s most valuable asset may be his leadership qualities. One scene in HBO’s 24/7 series on the Rangers and the Philadelphia Flyers showed Callahan informing coach John Tortorella about something an opponent seemed to be doing over and over and how they could combat it. Torts then turned around and confirmed it on his tapes.

It seems as though Tortorella respects Callahan’s opinion and hockey sense, impressive considering both Tortorella’s track record and Callahan’s age. Leading his team on a deep playoff run would be yet another feather in Callahan’s cap this season and he certainly seems to possess the maturity and skill to do so.

The duo of Derek Stepan and Carl Hagelin have been very successful on the team’s top line, with Marian Gaborik. Stepan is fourth in team scoring with 41 points. He’s just four points away from the total he set last year in his rookie season and on pace for over 50 points.

Tortorella and company have to pleased with Stepan’s progress, at least enough to make him the team’s No.1 centre. Carl Hagelin has also been impressive this season. He started the season with the Connecticut Whale in the AHL but found a place on the roster in late November — he might be the fastest guy in the Rangers’ lineup. Combined with adequate offensive prowess and promising defensive ability, Hagelin’s skill set is attractive for a Rangers lineup that some may see as being “heavy on muscle”. It will be interesting to see how they perform in the playoffs this year. Stepan had no points in the Rangers five post-season games last season and Hagelin has little playoff experience in his career. However, playing on the top line all season may bolster their confidence and pay dividends come playoff time.

Although Brad Richards hasn’t exactly performed up to offensive expectations in New York City so far this year, there’s a very real possibility that he will earn his keep in the playoffs. Of course, Richards was a key component in the 2003-04 Tampa Bay Lightning team that won the Stanley Cup, a team coached by John Tortorella. Richards won the Conn Smythe trophy that year with 26 points in 22 games, and proved that he is a player that can be depended on in those high-pressure situations. He’s nearly a point-per-game player in the post-season in his career, with 62 points in 63 games.

This season, Richards is actually on pace for a career low in points for a full season played but his value in the playoffs can be seen if one looks closely at his situational stats. For example, 20 of his 42 points have come in games played on the road. Production in away games is paramount in the playoffs, as every arena in the league is twice as loud and twice as hard to play in. Richards also displays great discipline in these away games, with solid defensive stats, 18 hits and 20 blocked shots, and just four penalty minutes. Further proving that Richards is great in clutch situations, he has 17 points this season in both tie games and in the third period of games. He will be a great asset to a relatively young Rangers team that doesn’t have much playoff experience.

Another key to any playoff success the team will have will be their ace netminder Henrik Lundqvist. Lundqvist has long flown under the radar in regard to top goaltenders in the league.  He’s played at least 70 games in four of the last five seasons.

However, this season can be looked at as Lundqvist’s coming out party. So far this year, he has a .940 S% and 1.75 GAA, with eight shutouts and a 30-12-4 record. He has to be the front-runner for the Vezina trophy. His record in the playoffs does leave something to be desired, just 15-20, with a save percentage of .909 and an average of 2.60 goals against. The argument can be made that in previous seasons, Lundqvist’s stats have suffered because of a lack of depth in the team’s defensive core, which is certainly not the case this year. It would not be unreasonable to expect his post-season stats to take a positive turn this spring. As Lundqvist goes, though, so will the team. If he cracks under pressure, the Rangers won’t have much hope of making a deep push with Martin Biron.

Speaking of New York’s core of defensemen, this might one of the most intriguing facets of the team. With the Rangers sitting in the top 10 in just about all of the NHL’s defensive categories, it is clear that this group of defenders, albeit young, are good at what they do. Michael Del Zotto is the stand out this season, sitting fifth in team scoring with 33 points. Not only can he contribute offensively, but his 131 hits and 79 blocked shots are also respectable. Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh are also having great seasons. McDonagh is third among league defensemen in blocked shots with 152, Girardi is tied for fifth with 148. Girardi is also in the top 10 in hits for defensemen with 167. Given the sandpaper in the Rangers’ forward core, with players like Brandon Prust, Brian Boyle and the newly acquired John Scott, there’s a very real possibility that the team could simply bruise their way to the Stanley Cup finals, à la the Anaheim Ducks in 2007.

The New York Rangers do not have the strongest offense in the NHL, the Eastern conference, or even the Atlantic division. Even with offensive juggernauts like Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards in the lineup, the team is still 12th in the league in goals per game. However, the Rangers are second to almost none in the NHL defensively. They are the team least scored on so far this season, with just 126 goals against this year and average 1.95 goals against per game, good enough for second in the league.

While a team certainly does need offensive prowess to win the Stanley Cup, defensive skill is indispensable in any lengthy playoff run. Would the Anaheim Ducks of 2007 have gotten as far as they did without the gritty play of Rob Niedermayer, Sammy Pahlsson and Shawn Thornton? Even though the Edmonton Oilers failed to win the Stanley Cup in 2006, as a team of heavily-contested underdogs, they made it to the Cup finals based on the sacrifice, in the form of shot-blocking primarily, of players like Jason Smith and Steve Staios. The Rangers have all the makings of a cup contender right now, superior defines, top notch goaltending, and adequate offense, and a deep playoff run, at least to the Eastern Conference finals, could be right around the corner.

– Stephen Lethbridge, Contributing Writer
@stephenleth

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