After a Wild Year, the Rangers are in the Playoffs


Chris Seward

A season of slumps and streaks sees the Rangers face rival Flyers in the first round. (Chris Seward-Raleigh News & Observer via MCT)


A season of slumps and streaks sees the Rangers face rival Flyers in the first round. (Chris Seward-Raleigh News & Observer via MCT)
A season of slumps and streaks sees the Rangers face rival Flyers in the first round. (Chris Seward-Raleigh News & Observer via MCT)

After a brutal and potentially debilitating road trip to start the season, the New York Rangers open their campaign at 2-6. The club has rebounded under the tutelage of first year coach Alain Vigneault to secure a first round playoff matchup with the Philadelphia Flyers, finishing second in the Metropolitan Division.

Due to renovations at Madison Square Garden going beyond the NHL’s summer recess, the Rangers played their first nine games of the 2013-14 season on the road. Compounding the difficulty of the road trip, which saw them visit several of the Western Conference’s powerhouses, were the late returns of speedy Swede Carl Hagelin and team Captain Ryan Callahan. Both missed the first month of the season with shoulder surgery. Center Derek Stepan, last season’s top point scorer, also returned in less than ideal shape, having held out for a new contract during training camp.

A 4-0 loss to the New Jersey Devils in Newark marked the nadir of the trip, and another shutout loss in the home opener to the Montreal Canadiens bore further evidence that this year’s Rangers were not playoff caliber.

But flashes of Vigneault’s new defensively oriented puck possession system shown through in November, as the team rebounded to even out at .500 by the end of the month.  A strong showing against former coach John Tortarella’s Vancouver Canucks, featuring a hat-trick from Chris Kreider, long thought to be punished by Tortarella’s grinding system, put the exclamation on the month’s last day.

A record-long nine game home stand in December was considered by many Rangers fans a potential runway for the team to take off. But four-straight losses, including another to the Devils, this time in overtime, scuttled those hopes. The second half of the home stand saw improvement, as the team collected seven of a possible ten points and set up the Rangers for a strong January.

Vigneault’s team seemed to finally shake off the remnants of Tortorella’s tenure, departing the former coach’s penchant for toughness and grit for a more stylized approach in January. The month ended on a high note as the Rangers drubbed the Devils and then narrowly beat the Islanders in the Stadium Series, two outdoor games hosted at Yankees Stadium.

The Rangers went into the Olympic break on the heels of a 13-6 record since the beginning of the new year, but the optimistic outlook surrounding their surge was tempered by the impending free agency of Captain Ryan Callahan.

On March 5, Callahan, unable to reach an agreement with the club on a new contract , was traded, along with two draft picks, to the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for Martin St. Louis, last season’s Art Ross Trophy winner for tallying the most points in the regular season.

St. Louis, himself the captain of the Lightning, has endured a trying spell thus far as a Ranger, recording his lone goal with the club on April 1. After the sluggish start in New York, he managed to settle in, and in April has shown flashes of his former self, with a three-assist effort in the Ranger’s third to last game of the season. He also recorded the winning assist in the Ranger’s penultimate contest setting up star forward Rick Nash for his 29th goal of the season.

After missing a month of the campaign in November with a concussion, Nash has rebounded nicely, and nine of his goals go down as the game winner, one short of the Ranger’s club record. A feisty encounter in late March with his former team, the Columbus Blue Jackets, seemed to spark Nash and the Rangers to a strong finish.

The Rangers will look to both Nash and St. Louis as offensive super stars to ignite the club as they begin their postseason with a first round matchup against the rugged Philadelphia Flyers.

So too will the team hope to continue playing their balanced and defensively sound brand as they enter the postseason. The team boasts three potent lines, and the massive contributions of pre-season afterthoughts Mats Zuccarello and Benoit Pouliot have gone a long way towards turning the Rangers into such a hard team to match up with. The third line wingers, centered by Derek Brassard, have both enjoyed career years, and alleviated the streaky nature of the Ranger’s star forwards.

A sound and envied defensive core anchored by the up-and-coming Ryan McDonaugh also has the Ranger’s fourth best Goals Against column in the league and third best Penalty Kill in the league.

As always though, Henrik Lundqvist’s performance will determine how deep the Rangers can dance this spring. After a shaky first half of the season, the all-world netminder has rounded into form not a moment too soon.  Against a Flyers team with high-end attacking talent but a suspect defensive corp and inexperienced goaltending, it is Lundqvist above all else who may provide the edge.