Rangers playoff chances growing with every win

New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist (30) and defenseman Ryan McDonagh (27) celebrate after winning an NHL hockey game against the Florida Panthers, Wednesday, Dec. 31, 2014, in Sunrise, Fla. The Rangers won 5-2. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)

Henrik Lundqvist and Ryan McDonagh celebrate a win against the Florida Panthers, Wednesday, Dec. 31, 2014 (AP Photo/Terry Renna)

The New York Rangers are a 95.9% favorite to capture a spot in the Eastern Conference according to SportsClubStats.com, a website that calculates playoff odds.

Prior to the Rangers going on an 8 game winning streak in December, they were only at 54%. When they lost to Detroit 3-2, it was the 8th time the Blueshirts had blown a two goal lead this season. The loss sent shockwaves and alarm bells to every man in the room.

Alain Vigneault had seen enough and calmly called out his team afterwards. “In the second period, something that is not very characteristic of this group is two very lazy back checks by our forwards coming back into our zone.” Players were baffled too as Dan Boyle shrugged and said, “Who knows why? We’re just not getting that consistency out of everybody and our team game. But nobody knows why?”

Derek Stepan (Scott Levy / Getty)

Derek Stepan (Scott Levy / Getty)

Still there were enough circumstances to reason why the Rangers were so inconsistent, starting with the mounting injuries from camp on out. It began with Derek Stepan breaking his leg and the mad scramble to find a replacement. Everyone was shifted around, from JT Miller to AHL journeyman Chris Mueller. Finally, the Rangers settled on moving Kevin Hayes from wing to center and have lived with his poor face-off performances because of his ability to makes plays at both ends.

Then the defense got slammed, and it started in the first game of the year when Dan Boyle broke his hand. Boyle is just starting to find his game with a goal and 5 points in his last 5 contests. Ryan McDonagh was also lost thanks to a shoulder separation for a long period. While they were out, John Moore was suspended and Kevin Klein missed some time with a bruised foot.

The Rangers blue line had Matt Hunwick, Conor Allen, Mike Kostka and Dylan McIlrath all in at the same time. It was really amazing that they could hold up under these circumstances. Finally, the Rangers had to battle the mumps as Tanner Glass, Derick Brassard and Lee Stempniak would all contract it.

Rick Nash (Getty)

Rick Nash (Getty)

All the while, Rick Nash was rolling and keeping the Rangers above water. He has clearly been the team’s MVP, followed by the heart and guts of Kevin Klein. Of course, the Rangers simply wouldn’t be the Rangers if not for goaltending. Cam Talbot has done a remarkable job as Henrik’s understudy, but The King has continued to be one of the most dominant goaltenders in the game today.

Now NY is faced with a 3 game Western road swing that Henrik Lundqvist knows will be a challenge. “It’s going to be a great test for us. Three really good teams, and obviously some memories out there.” Lundqvist was referring to the L.A. Kings who will be on the docket this time around. “We’ll see how it feels walking into [the Staples Center]. I think we’re excited to go.”

The Rangers will start Wednesday in Anaheim followed by the Kings on Thursday. The trip will end against San Jose on Saturday. NY will need a solid road trip because when they return, a huge tilt with the Islanders looms at the Garden on Tuesday 1/13/15.

Glen Sather (Anthony Causi)

Glen Sather (Anthony Causi)

Trouble does loom on the horizon for Sather and the Rangers organization. Just like the situations last year with Dan Girardi and Ryan CallahanMarc Staal and Mats Zuccarello are both going to be UFA’s come July. We’ve learned that as Sather has gotten older, he’s become distinctly more stingy when it comes to contracts. He’s also really stubborn about the not losing certain valuable players for nothing.

Would the Rangers really consider upsetting the chemistry of this team if both Staal and Zucc aren’t signed by the deadline? The Rangers cap situation is a real issue even if the cap ceiling reaches the last expected number of $71-$73 million.

The list of impending free agents is huge, starting with UFA, Martin St, Louis. You have to figure MSL is going to be willing to take a more incentive laden contract in order to keep the cap hit down for the Rangers.

However on the RFA front, Derek Stepan is going to crack the bank wide open at about 6 – 7 million a seasonCarl Hagelin will also be up for a new contract as an RFA. He currently makes an AAV on the cap of 2.250 million, that number is sure to reach 3.5 or more. Just to make things more interesting and difficult, JT Miller, Jesper Fast and John Moore are also restricted.

The Rangers will no doubt be faced with difficult decisions but for now they are humming. NY has come a long way since that December 6th loss to Detroit. In less than a month they’ve improved their playoff chances by over 40%.

It’s certainly been an incredible 2014 for the Blueshirts. If they can continue, 2015 may be an even better ride.

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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