As the playoffs approach, the Rangers have been one of the hotter teams of late, winning eight of ten games to solidify their spot in the playoffs. With five games remaining, their magic number to clinch a spot is three, while the magic number to clinch a non-wild card spot is down to seven. It seems almost a guarantee that the Rangers will make the playoffs.
The Rangers will go as far as Henrik Lundqvist takes them. They have the best goaltending in the Eastern Conference, and a hot Hank will spell doom for most of the opposition. Hank has shown he can steal a playoff series, mainly against Washington, and will likely need to do so at least once this year. The best part is that –Calgary clunker aside– Hank is playing some of his better hockey of late. When the All-World caliber goalie is starting to get hot, it’s a good sign.
As important as Hank is, injuries will play a significant role again. The Rangers are already having trouble replacing Chris Kreider in the lineup, with Dan Carcillo getting top-six minutes. J.T. Miller isn’t ready for The Show yet, and there aren’t many options in Hartford that appear ready. If Ryan McDonagh is out for an extended period of time, that means Justin Falk is getting 10-12 minutes a game. The injury depth isn’t there.
That said, if McDonagh’s injury isn’t too bad and Martin St. Louis can ride some of the momentum train after scoring his first goal the other night, the effect of Kreider’s absence will be minimal. Of course, guys like Rick Nash, Derek Stepan, Carl Hagelin, and Brad Richards need to continue producing as well.
One thing the Rangers have that most teams do not: A third line of Benoit Pouliot-Derick Brassard-Mats Zuccarello. This trio has reaped the benefits of the top-six drawing all the attention. If that top-six ever gets going on a consistent basis, then this team is capable of putting up one goal per line per game.
We’ve harped on the importance of avoiding a wild card spot, and the Rangers appear to have done so. The Penguins –with their shaky defense and always Fleury’d goaltending– aren’t too scary, but Boston is the only team that truly scares me in the playoffs. Well, that is aside from playing in Montreal, because Hank gets the willies when he plays there.
Speaking of avoiding the wild card, a first round matchup with the Flyers appears all but guaranteed at this stage of the season. The top two teams get the wild card spots, and #2 plays #3 in the division. In less than two weeks, the Rangers will either be hosting the Flyers or taking the train to Philly. Offensively, the Flyers are scary. Defensively, they are not.
Remember that atrocious start? The Rangers are now third in the conference in regulation/OT wins with 39, behind both Boston and Pittsburgh. That’s how hot this team was in January, and how hot this team continues to be as the playoffs approach.
Call it a hunch, I don’t think many teams, if any, want to see the Rangers in the first round."Random thoughts as the playoffs approach",