Difficulty eliminating the Rangers makes them Cup favorites

Captain Ryan Callahan’s win-at-all-costs attitude is a perfect embodiment of the Rangers’ philosophy. (Tim Kolupanowich/CM)

By: Tim Kolupanowich, Executive Editor

@TimKolupan_

In January of this year, about halfway through the 2011-12 season, I wrote a piece for The Good Point explaining why the New York Rangers were close to being true Stanley Cup contenders. I noted how they had nearly all the right parts, all they were lacking was experience together as a team. They certainly got that last season as they reached the Eastern Conference final for the first time since 1997, losing in six games to the New Jersey Devils. I said they’d be dangerous starting this season and the more their lineup is examined, the harder it is to find a weak point.

While they won’t necessarily be a powerhouse or sweep their way through any playoff rounds, but they are a team that won’t go away and will be incredibly difficult to eliminate.

The thing about the Rangers is despite big names such as Henrik Lundqvist, Rick Nash, Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik, coach John Tortorella’s style of play works because the Rangers don’t rely on individuals to win games (well, maybe Lundqvist).

Sure, Gaborik gets them through the regular season by providing goals that would otherwise be hard to reproduce with this lineup (though certainly a situation that was improved with the acquisition of Rick Nash) and losing him would mean struggling to make the playoffs. But after that point, they’ll continue winning simply because how hard it is for the to lose. Even when they have trouble scoring, they are incredibly difficult to get on the board against. The opposition has to spend a ton of energy for just one goal, scoring enough times to win one game, let alone four, would leave them exhausted.

When every skater on the roster blocks shots, hits and forechecks like they do on the Rangers, you have the potential for something special. Grit and sandpaper is a huge reason why Los Angeles, the eighth seed, won the Stanley Cup last season (going up 3-0 in every series sure helped out a lot, too). It took the best effort of teams just to not get swept, there was no way they’d lose the series.

But perhaps the 2011 Boston Bruins are a better example of what to expect next season from the Rangers. They had a solid albiet unspectacular season, going 46-25-11 for 103 points and a Northeast Division title. Once they were in the playoffs, they were what the Rangers will be, difficult to eliminate. They won the Stanley Cup, but don’t forget had to win three Game 7s to do so.

Their run could have just as easily ended in the first round when they needed overtime to eliminate Montreal. Two seasons of playoff heartbreak before that run taught them hard lessons and though only two teams have ever played more games in the playoffs than Boston’s 25 (the 1987 Philadelphia Flyers and 2004 Calgary Flames both played 26 games, but failed to capture the Cup), their dogged determination, physical prowess and ability to not look down when facing adversity led to ultimate glory.

Going back even further, the Philadelphia Flyers only made the 2010 playoffs after a shootout win in the final game of the season, but made it all the way to the Stanley Cup final because they were built to be a playoff team, just like the Rangers are now.

Sure, the Rangers were taken to Game 7 by the bottom two teams in the East last year which may be cause for concern for some, but optimists should realize now they know how to win the big game. The parity in today’s game due to the salary cap has created an environment where any team can win if they make the playoffs, so the key isn’t to focus on being stretched to the limit by the bottom two teams in the East, but that they won as many rounds last season as they have since 1997.

Save for Gaborik, each player on their roster holds his own along the boards and in the corners, meaning every shift is a grind. Rookie Chris Kreider is known for his speed and skill, but is still 6-foot-3, 230 pounds. Richards is one of the slickest playmakers in the league, but with a Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy to his name, he obviously knows what it takes to advance. Grit they lost in Brandon Dubinsky (traded to Columbus for Nash) was more than made up in newcomers Taylor Pyatt, Jeff Halpern and Arron Asham.

Dan Girardi anchors one of the top bluelines in the NHL. (Tim Kolupanowich/CM)

They have the reigning Vezina Trophy winner in Lundqvist , but even better is the defense in front of him is an average of only 23.8 years old (Dan Girardi is the most senior blueliner at 27) with 177 games of playoff experience between them. Prior to last season, the top six of Girardi, Marc Staal, Ryan McDonagh, Michael Del Zotto, Anton Stralman and Stu Bickel only had 59 games of experience.

The Rangers are going to be deep, talented, gritty and hungry to win this season and that is a dangerous combination for every other team. And even though they play in arguably the toughest division n hockey, the Flyers and New Jersey Devils have taken a step backwards this summer leaving the Pittsburgh Penguins as their only major challenge. Unless something drastic happens during the course of the season, the Rangers have to be favorites to win the Cup.

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