Rangers musings: Mika Zibanejad has been freed from top shutdown matchups.

The Rangers are headed to the playoffs, something we knew from before puck drop on Game 1 of the regular season. They’ve been in first place in the Metro since the end of October and are now in a position to win the President’s Trophy. These are obviously big stories, but we are in a bit of a lull as the Rangers finish out the season and prepare for the playoffs.

The Rangers do need to get healthy on the blue line, especially after the slop fest on Tuesday night. There have been a few positives with all the injuries, Zac Jones being one, but it still doesn’t take away from needing to see what a full strength Rangers team can do before the playoffs start.

1. One of the big positives about the injuries on the blue line is that Peter Laviolette was forced to look at different defense pairs with his three remaining starters. Zac Jones-Adam Fox looked great, but Fox can play with anyone and Jones likely won’t be a starter in the playoffs.

We’ve been wanting a K’Andre Miller-Adam Fox pairing for quite some time, but given how bad both Ryan Lindgren and Jacob Trouba have looked for most of the season, putting them together might not be such a good idea anymore. Hopefully the injuries gave these two much needed rest.

Erik Gustafsson, the other injured defenseman, is likely due back before the other two.

2. Kudos to both Jones and newcomer Chad Ruhwedel, who have slid right into the lineup and neither have missed a beat. Jones is arguably an upgrade on both Lindgren and Trouba right now, which is both a testament to how he’s played and how bad the other two have been most of the season. I don’t want to beat a dead horse though.

The main issue with Tuesday’s sloppy win against the Flyers was the Rangers being down to their 7-8-9 defensemen playing big minutes. You can’t quantify the impact of simply knowing what to expect from the defensemen, especially for Igor Shesterkin, so losing Gustafsson hurt more than it normally would have.

Brandon Scanlin will hopefully continue to grow and become a serviceable 6-7D. Not bad for an undrafted FA out of college.

3. Not lost in the Philly game was the absence of Alex Wennberg. which also played a big role in why the Rangers looked so sloppy. His role as a shutdown 3C has stabilized the Rangers forward depth and balanced the lineup. But most importantly, it shifted the majority of the shutdown minutes off Mika Zibanejad, which has been slowly getting one of the Rangers’ most important players going.

It’s not all about points and possession metrics. Sometimes it’s simply about the role. His role is to take the tough assignments and free up Zibanejad. he’s doing just that.

4. That said, his absence did highlight how fragile the lineup can be if a center gets hurt in the playoffs. No team can withstand an injury to a Zibanejad or an Artemi Panarin or any of their stars, but normally they are able to withstand a bottom of the lineup injury. Wennberg’s absence, while not an injury, was felt.

I’d argue now that Wennberg is the most important non-star player on the Rangers right now. And I don’t think I’m that far off.

The Rangers will need two lines that can score, and if Zibanejad is taking the shutdown minutes, they only have one line that can score. It’s as simple as that.

5. It is also worth noting that in all of Zibanejad’s 5v5 struggles this year, it was rarely mentioned that he was getting matched up against the opposition’s top competition (based on TOI) on a regular basis. It may be why Kaapo Kakko’s presence on the top line was a net-positive, significantly increasing their defensive efficiency, but was never a true impact offensively. But that’s more conjecture and guesswork right now.

As mentioned in yesterday’s Patreon post, Wennberg will be the favored shutdown C, but Zibanejad is a backup option, and an effective one at that. Options, depth, and balance. At least when healthy.

6. The Rangers need about 113 points to be comfortable in their chances to win the President’s Trophy. That’s a 6-3-1 record in their last 10 games, 7-2-1 to feel even safer.

They have 3 games against teams with less than 70 points (MTL, ARI, OTT), 2 games against playoff teams (COL, PHI), 1 against a bubble team (DET), and 4 against that middle ground (PIT, NYI 2x, NJD).

If they win the 3 against bottom feeders, they just need to go .500 in the other 7 games (3-3-1) to hit the 6-3-1 mark. Seems attainable, no?

7. The playoffs begin on April 20. The goal until then is to stay healthy and help the new guys get more acquainted with the system, their role, and the locker room.

But as we always say, this team will only go as far as their stars take them. It’s now up to the big money players to carry them.


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