Losing your star netminder for a couple weeks late in the season usually doesn’t bode well for a team, but this is when the New York Rangers can really count on their depth. Not only is Antti Raanta a worthy fill-in for Henrik Lundqvist (Raanta even has the better numbers this year), but the Blueshirts boast a thick lineup that is both talented and experienced. In the vicious vortex that is the Metropolitan Division, that’s a great combination for the stretch run.
“It’s fun,” said center Mika Zibanejad. “It’s competitive; it’s what you want. It doesn’t make it easy to get into that top three, but that tells you that you have to be on your game. You have to be on top of your structure and the little things you work on in practice and watch on video.”
Right now, the Rangers appear to be pretty locked in as the East’s No. 1 wild card team. They’re close to Columbus and Pittsburgh in points, but New York has also played more games than the two squads they’re chasing. Nonetheless, the Rangers are 15 points clear of the second wild card slot, so let’s just go ahead and pencil them into the post-season.
Though the franchise hasn’t won a Stanley Cup since 1994, the Rangers have made several impressive runs of late. In the past five years, New York has played in 13 playoff series. That’s better than Pittsburgh (11) and Los Angeles (12) and tied with Chicago. Though the Rangers want to focus on the here and now, the experience of a veteran core that includes Lundqvist, Ryan McDonagh and Rick Nash among several others will help the kids – Zibanejad, Brady Skjei, Jimmy Vesey, etc. – once the post-season arrives.
“We’ll cross that bridge when we get there,” Zibanejad said. “I’ve been through three playoff series, so it helps being with a team that has gone deep in the playoffs. You just try to take everything in.”
In all these crunch-time and playoff games, however, the veterans are prepared to do their mentoring best, should any of the youngsters ask.
“The biggest thing is that one shift can make the difference,” McDonagh said. “You’ve gotta be focused. Every time you step on the ice could be the difference in the game, whether it’s an offensive play or a defensive play.”
The Rangers are at an interesting spot right now. They’ve been in their Cup window for years now and maximized their time, albeit without that elusive title. But how much longer will that window remain open? Lundqvist is the biggest question mark, because goaltenders have a tendency to fall off a cliff when they get to the ends of their careers, though it’s hard to count ‘The King’ out until it actually happens. He certainly had some struggles this season, but Lundqvist also tends to raise his game in the playoffs, so is the jury still out on his effectiveness?
There’s also the matter of possession numbers. Surprisingly, the Rangers are amongst the worst in the NHL when it comes to Corsi For percentage, but New York also has one of the best shooting percentages overall and scores goals by the bucket. When offense becomes tougher to come by in the playoffs, that might be a death-knell for the squad, but they’re not exactly coasting off their successes in the dressing room.
“We have to continue to fine-tune our game,” McDonagh said. “We’re talking a lot about our play without the puck and we’ve been pretty good about not giving up too many odd-man looks lately.”
The challenge of getting back to the Cup final, as New York did in 2014, is a tall one. If anything, there is a pragmatic argument to be made that by finishing as the top wild card team, New York would get to cross over into the weaker Atlantic Division bracket, thus increasing their chances of long-term success. At the least, they’d avoid playing two of Washington, Pittsburgh and Columbus just to get to the conference final.
But to be the best, New York will have to beat the best. The challenge is very real this season and the Rangers have a great combination of youth, talent and experience. Now the mission is to put it all together for 16 wins.