Rangers inch closer to home ice with win over Carolina

Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

The Rangers gained ground on both Columbus and Philly last night, beating Carolina by a score of 4-1. The Rangers came out a bit soft against the Canes, a bit of a repeat of their last matchup, but collected themselves and scored four straight en route to the victory. With the win, the Rangers have moved closer to clinching a non-wild card spot, as the magic number is now down to two. The magic number to clinch home ice against the Flyers in the first round is down to four.

The big guns for the Rangers showed up last night. Martin St. Louis had three assists, Brad Richards had two goals, and Derek Stepan had a goal and an assist. Even Rick Nash, who was held off the scoreboard, had some good looks, but couldn’t finish. But when the others are scoring, Nash just needs to draw the attention of the defense. He did that, and the Rangers took advantage.

On to the goals:

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Mats Zuccarello wins Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award

Just prior to tonight’s puck drop with Carolina, the Rangers held a ceremony to announce the winner of the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award. The Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award has been presented each season since 1987-88 to the Rangers player who goes above and beyond the normal call of duty, and is named in honor of paralyzed New York City police officer Steven McDonald.

This year’s winner was Mats Zuccarello, who has been the backbone of this team offensively and a bit of a troublemaker when he doesn’t have the puck. Former captain Ryan Callahan had won the award four of the previous five years.

Game 80: Secure a non-wild card spot

Photo: Star Ledger

Photo: Star Ledger

In case you missed it, the Rangers clinched a playoff spot last night when the Devils lost to the Flames. That doesn’t mean the remaining three games are meaningless, as the Rangers would probably like to avoid the wild card and a date with the Penguins or Bruins in the first round. With the magic number at four, they can actually clinch at least a #3 seed tonight if they win against Carolina and Columbus loses against Phoenix. After that, it’s just about home ice against the Flyers.

The Canes play a bit of a hybrid forechecking system. They play an aggressive 2-3 to start the game, but will switch to a trap late in the game with a lead. In the defensive zone , they run box + 1 system, which is a box setup in front with a player pressuring depending on the puck location. On special teams, the Canes run an umbrella powerplay and a hybrid  penalty kill (varies between the systems based on puck location).

Rangers Lineup:

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Lineup Changes: Fast with Richards, Hagelin

Per Andrew Gross, the Rangers have inserted Jesper Fast into the lineup on a line with Brad Richards and Carl Hagelin. This means Derek Stepan will be skating with Rick Nash and Martin St. Louis. The third and fourth lines will remain the same, with Dan Carcillo likely serving as the healthy scratch tonight. The full lines:

St. Louis-Stepan-Nash

The defense pairings will be the same, and Henrik Lundvist will get the start in net.

Injury notes: Kreider, McDonagh skating

Per Andrew Gross, both Ryan McDonagh and Chris Kreider were skating today at the Rangers optional skate. Neither did intensive work, with McDonagh doing some light skating and Kreider gripping his stick with one hand, but it’s a good sign to see them skating. Alain Vigneault did not give a timetable for either’s return, but did mention he is unsure if he wants McDonagh to return before the playoffs. Naturally, Kreider needs to grip a stick with two hands before he returns.

There’s no need to rush either guy. There’s a week before the playoffs start, let them get that extra week.

New playoff format set to pour gasoline on old rivalries

We might be seeing a whole lot of this ugly face in the coming weeks

Pretty much since the moment I first heard about realignment, I wasn’t a fan. It seemed silly to me to dramatically restructure the league when more changes might have to be made in short order due to relocation or expansion (although the likelihood of that has been reduced). I thought it was unfair that both Eastern Conference divisions housed an additional team, reducing each member’s chances of making the playoffs. And don’t even get me started on the new division names.

But worst of all is the new playoff format. It makes no sense to me that three teams from each division are guaranteed playoff spots regardless of whether Team 3 in Division A has 45 points and Team 6 in Division B has 85 points (hypothetically).

That’s not to say the new system is without advantages. I like that each team now plays every other team twice a season, and I do see the advantages of making travel time closer to equal for each franchise. But overall, I would have preferred to keep the old format to preserve the 1-8 playoff system if nothing else.

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Rangers clinch playoff spot with Devils loss last night

Some people will call this “backing into” the playoffs, but with the Devils loss last night, the Rangers have officially clinched a playoff spot. I say some people call it backing in because the Rangers still have three games left, so it’s not like they needed the loss. It just helped them clinch sooner. The magic number to clinch a non-wild card seed is down to four on Columbus. The magic number to clinch home ice against the Flyers in round one is still at six.

As long as the Rangers get a #2 or #3 seed, they will guarantee that they will not meet the Bruins until the Conference Finals. Since a first round matchup with the Flyers is all but guaranteed at this point, it appears the road to the Stanley Cup Finals will begin against Philly, then head to Pittsburgh in the second round, and then finally to Boston for the Conference Finals. That, of course, assumes wins by the favorites in each round.

Remember that horrible start? It seems like a distant memory. The Rangers crawled out of the cellar to be one of the hottest teams in the Eastern Conference heading into the playoffs. New York is also third in the conference in goal differential as well. This is a team that not many want to see in the postseason.

Debunking the “Vigneault doesn’t play the kids” myth

Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

When Alain Vigneault had some choice comments for J.T. Miller following his demotion back to the AHL, after being given a golden opportunity to take a critical role for the Rangers, many fans called for AV’s head. The arguments thrown out had nothing to do with his successes as the coach this year, but that he has “never liked kids and refuses to play the kids.” It’s a silly argument actually.

Let’s use AV’s recent history –his stint with the Canucks– as the barometer for playing the kids. He started there as the head coach in 2006-2007. Since the 2004-2005 season never happened, I think it’s fair to start with the 2003 draft as our cutoff for our little experiment, seeing how many kids were drafted by and played for the Canucks under AV. Technically, I can use the 2001 draft since Kevin Bieksa (5th round of 2001 draft) didn’t play his first full season until 2006-2007. But, let’s use 2003 as the cutoff.

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Rangers recall Jesper Fast

To help fill the hole left by Chris Kreider’s hand injury, the Rangers have recalled forward Jesper Fast from the Hartford Wolf Pack. Fast, who initially broke camp with the Rangers, was a sixth round draft pick in 2010, and has a line of 17-17-34 in 48 games with the Pack this season. He’s widely believed to be the most NHL ready forward after J.T. Miller, and with Miller faltering at the NHL level, it seems natural that Fast would get the next opportunity.

Chris Kreider’s injury causing depth issues

Photo by Scott Levy/NHLI via Getty Images

Photo by Scott Levy/NHLI via Getty Images

When Chris Kreider went down with his hand injury last month, the Rangers needed to scramble to find options to fill his spot in the top-nine (AV uses his top-nine for scoring, and his fourth line for defense). After all, the Rangers were losing one of their fastest skaters, one of their more potent offensive weapons, and a guy who was likely to put up his first 20-goal, 40-point season while playing alongside Derek Stepan and Rick Nash. These aren’t easy shoes to fill.

J.T. Miller was immediately recalled and slotted into the lineup, but his play without the puck left a lot to be desired. After a game and a half, he was scratched for two games then sent back to Hartford with a message. Miller likely won’t be back until the Wolf Pack season ends (as a healthy scratch/injury replacement). Dan Carcillo has been filling in for Kreider admirably, but he’s no top-nine forward.

Naturally, this is a problem for the Rangers as they head into a first round date with the Flyers.

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