Rangers eye President’s Trophy, yet concerns loom in the background

Rangers win in Chicago (Bill Smith/Getty)

Rangers win in Chicago (Bill Smith/Getty)

Make no mistake about it, the Rangers are one of the best teams in the NHL. This should also come as no surprise since these are the defending Eastern Conference Champions.

From top to bottom, Glen Sather and the management have put together one of the finest teams in Rangers history. Led by the calm and cool Alain Vigneault, this team plays an uptempo skill game with a hard work ethic. It is a combination that has put them now in the top of the league’s standings.

Still, there are concerns going forward even with all the winning going on. While they may not be impacting the Rangers now, it could come at the most crucial time of the year – the post-season.

Henrik Lundqvist

Lundqvist has eyes on the puck (Getty Images)

Lundqvist has eyes on the puck (Getty Images)

Wait, Henrik Lundqvist is a concern? Even so, we have Cam Talbot so what are we worried about you say? Okay, here’s the deal…Henrik Lundqvist is coming back and will be doing so after not playing for well over a month, maybe two.

Now, if you think for a second that once Lundqvist returns he will take a back seat to Talbot, you’re dead wrong. Regardless of Talbot’s stats, it will be Lundqvist who will be given the opportunity in the playoffs. Lundqvist has shown in the last few season’s¬†that he struggles to start. Can the Rangers get him back in enough time to find his game before the first round?

That is my top concern right now with the Rangers and it is a legitimate one. If Henrik comes back with just a few regular season games and is rusty, it could have serious consequences in the playoffs.

Imagine a scenario where Lundqvist isn’t as sharp as he should be and loses game 1 to Boston. Even if he gets blown out, AV will go back to him in game 2. If he continues struggling, being down 2-0 in series to the Bruins, 8th seed or not is a death wish.

Face-Offs

Yes, I am still harping on this. I know that there is some scatter diagram out there showing that there is no direct or tangible correlation between face-offs and possession, but are you really going to put your faith in that fuzzy math? Especially when most hockey experts and coaches talk about their importance.

Forget for a minute that the Rangers are 29th on draws but 1st in the standings. Over the course of a long regular season, you can obviously survive and thrive being bad on draws. Why? Great goaltending, solid defense and an offense that is top 5 in the NHL.

Now, take that into a 7 game series against an equal opponent that is better than you on draws. It’s overtime in game 7 and you are still rocking a 46% on draws. There is a key face-off in your zone and the other guy wins it clean (again), this is called possession. The defenseman rears back a big slap shot as the forwards crash the net. In the blink of an eye, the puck finds its way past Lundqvist and the Rangers amazing season is over.

Sheppard set to impress (Getty)

James Sheppard (Getty)

So what can the Rangers do? Alain Vigneault needs to find a way to make James Sheppard and his 50% on draws and near 52% winning percentage in the defensive zone a permanent fixture. Even if it is at the expense of Jesper Fast.

The fact that the third line of Hayes with Hagelin and Miller are playing so well actually complicates things a bit. Sheppard on Hayes’ wing could actually take all draws for him and slide over to the wing once face-off is won. However, just having Sheppard in the lineup gives AV the option late in a game to put him out there with Hayes to take any important draw.

While this appears to not be a problem now, it could very well kill them in the playoffs.

The Second Line

Marty St. Louis makes no mistakes here (Photo: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

Marty St. Louis makes no mistakes here (Photo: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

We all know what an amazing season Rick Nash is having. Along with Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello, they are the Rangers key line. That means in the playoffs they will be facing the opposition’s best defenders.

Now, if the third line with Hayes continues to contribute it will help. However, Derek Stepan along with Chris Kreider and especially Marty St. Louis need to contribute. Over their last 10 games they have 6 goals and and 9 points. St. Louis and Kreider have 3 goals each, while Stepan has only 2 assists (Kreider has the other).

Yes, be very concerned if this continues in the playoffs and the top line is shut down.

Other Concerns

The power play has obviously slipped, but over the last few year’s recent Stanley Cup Champions haven’t exactly electrified the world with the man advantage. Although, imagine what a few PP goals would have done for the Rangers against the Kings.

Another concern is one shared by all teams – injuries. Right now we are waiting for Henrik Lundqvist to get back, but we are also holding our breath on the results of Kevin Klein‘s x-rays.

If he were to miss the 1st round of the playoffs that would be a big blow. Of course, same could be said to an injury to any other defenseman or top 9 forward. The playoffs in the NHL are a war of attrition, so you need a little luck in the health department.

Always Optimistic

Call me a fool, but I really believe the Rangers are going to go all the way this season. I also fully expect Henrik Lundqvist to be cleared soon and return to action in enough time to sharpen his skills for a long post season run.

The injury could also prove to be a blessing in disguise for the Rangers. Lundqvist may be the freshest goalie going into the playoffs, removing any fatigue factor in the Stanley Cup Final this time around.

I also think Alain Vigneault will work out his best lineup before the post season starts and it will include James Sheppard. More importantly, he will figure out how to get him in the face-off circle.

So there you have it! What are you thinking? I’d love to hear it in the comments below.

Anthony Scultore has been covering the New York Rangers and the NHL since 2014. His work also appears at... More about Anthony Scultore

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