The Young Guns Must Lead The Charge…
The NHL playoffs are right around the corner. When I realistically look at the Rangers chances, I see a team that is in better shape than last year, but not as good as the two years previous. Despite the presence of Ryan McDonagh, and the unreal emergence of Brady Skjei, the Rangers defense is their Achilles’ heel. Dan Girardi and Kevin Klein are coming back from injury, and at best are the second pair, but more likely third-pair defensemen. Marc Staal and Nick Holden have lost their chemistry as a pair, and have both been uneven from game to game. Trade deadline acquisition Brendan Smith has brought some bite, but hasn’t found chemistry with any one player to form a consistent pairing.
Henrik Lundqvist has three more games to get himself into the playoff beast mode that we have seen in the past. The King has had a very up and down year, much like his defense. He had a remarkable stretch in February and then got sidetracked by injury. Lundqvist has made a career out of stealing playoff series from superior teams, and he will need to be on or close to that level. Antti Raanta played well during Lundqvist’s absence, but lost 5 out of 7 games; all of which came against non-playoff teams. Raanta found out what Hank has seen so often in the playoffs. If the forwards come up small, the team will lose a lot of 2-1 and 3-2 games.
Strength Up Front
The Rangers have a deeply talented group of forwards. There is no Connor McDavid. No Alex Ovechkin, but a deep and diverse group. Kevin Hayes, JT Miller, and Chris Kreider have all had their best seasons. They all need to be a force in the playoffs. Mats Zuccarello, Rick Nash, Derek Stepan and Michael Grabner are the veteran players that have to be consistent and not become invisible for games at a time. Mika Zibanajad, Oscar Lindberg, and Jesper Fast have enough experience and skill to start contributing on both ends. Rookies Jimmy Vesey and Pavel Buchnevich are talented and have bright futures ahead of them; both of whom can chip into the cause. But the onus falls on those first 3 groups. If a majority of the Rangers deep forward group brings their “A” game, they can be successful.
The Rangers forwards need to play fast and impose their will in games. If they possess the puck frequently, the odds of winning go up sharply. In recent playoff years, the players that scored the most points during the regular season have virtually disappeared in the post season. This group has played many playoff games and have full awareness of what to expect. It comes down to this: the forwards must take the pressure off the defense. Last year’s Penguins team did exactly that on their way to winning the Stanley Cup.
Both Sides Of The Puck
Rolling four skilled, and fast lines are the backbone of the Rangers’ persona. Puck possession is one key. Another big factor is speed and diligence on the backcheck. Causing turnovers in the neutral zone is a great way to spring odd man opportunities. Even if the opposition gains the entry into the Rangers defensive zone, quick backchecking forwards can make a defenseman’s job a lot easier by disrupting the puck carrier. Hustling on both ends makes a hockey player expend energy; which is why coach Alain Vigneault demands short shifts, and in a perfect world, will utilize all of his forwards.
The defense has to be masked; by the goaltender and by the forwards. McDonagh and Skjei are both “top three” defensemen going forward, and adding partners for both should be Jeff Gorton’s mission this summer. Staal and Girardi can be a help on penalty killing in the playoffs, but after that, it will be a mix and match. As Rangers fans, we can all be excited about the strides so many of the young forwards have made; and the playoffs will be their time to shine.