BY CHAYIM TAUBER
A clang off the crossbar and a bouncing puck or two were what separated last season’s New York Rangers from the immortality that comes with a Stanley Cup. They lost in a Stanley Cup Finals that saw three games go to overtime and four games decided by just one score.
That’s all old news.
This season’s iteration of postseason Rangers is one with a very different script. This season, the Rangers find themselves the President’s Trophy winners, the top seeded team in the East, and the prohibitive favorites to win the Stanley Cup.
And yet this season, the road will be tougher than last.
A first round matchup with Sidney Crosby and his Pittsburgh teammates sees them squaring off against an eight-seed that had them down 3-1 and a game away from a second-round exit just a season ago. Recent history warns about the potency of 8 seeds in the Stanley Cup Playoffs – the Stanley Cup Champion LA Kings being the most recent example. This is a team that, if overlooked, will explode offensively and cause all sorts of headaches for the recently activated Henrik Lundqvist.
Lundqvist, as always, is the X-factor for a deep postseason run. The blue line in front of him is the best he’s ever had but he will once again expected to make miracles into happenstance as he did just a year ago. Can Lundqvist jump right into postseason form with just a handful of games under his belt since suffering a scary vascular injury that had him sidelined for nearly two months?
It’s the other Rangers’ X-factor that’s tasked with making Henrik’s job easier.
Rick Nash was all but invisible last postseason. He played hard on the puck and along the boards but the talented scorer that the Rangers traded for tallied just 3 goals throughout the postseason. That stat line cannot be repeated if the Rangers have any hopes of raising Lord Stanley’s Cup on Broadway.
Year 2 of Nash’s Rangers tenure has seen the prodigious goal scorer return to form, raising his goal output from 26 to 42 this season. Nash as a scoring threat opens up the ice for secondary scorers and skill players like Martin St. Louis, Chris Kreider, Mats Zuccarello, Carl Hagelin, Derek Stepan, and Kevin Hayes. The speed and open-ice ability opens up if Rick Nash establishes himself as a goal-scoring presence this postseason. The added offense would do wonders to alleviate some of the pressure on the 33-year-old netminder.
Should the Rangers perform to expectation and vanquish the Pens in the first round, they face a field that includes a Lightning team that has been a nightmare for them this season, and Islanders team that has been a thorn in their side all year, a red-hot Ovechkin-led Capitals team, and a Montreal team that the Rangers will likely NOT have the luxury of facing without incumbent Vezina Trophy winner Carey Price a second time (as they did a year ago).
The Rangers are primed to go on a deep, magical run this postseason. The adversity they’ve overcome, especially of late in the forms of key losses to Martin St. Louis, Lundqvist, and Kevin Klein (who was the Rangers best defenseman for a large portion of the season) speaks volumes about the team’s depth. Coach Alain Vigneault regularly has his teams primed for deep postseason runs and this Rangers team provides possiblty his best chance at finally raising the cup. Those that think that it’s a guarantee however, are sadly mistaken.
The Stanley Cup playoffs are always a crapshoot and this season, the field is littered with landmines. As the postseason is primed to start, it’s the Blueshirts that enter on top of the mountain.