From time to time, I’ll tune into NHL Network to see what the color analysts are saying following a game. In this case, it was former NHL tough guy Mike Rupp, who gave a fresh take on the Rangers. After their come from behind 3-2 overtime win over the Canucks, Rupp stated that he doesn’t see anyone aside from the Caps beating the Rangers in a series. So, I decided to send him a tweet and got this interesting response:
From that standpoint, Rupp has a valid point. In a weak Eastern Conference, the Blueshirts still have the third most points (55) behind conference-leading Washington (73) and Atlantic Division leader Florida (57). Their 23 regulation/overtime wins is tied with the Lightning for second most. Tampa Bay has won six in a row to get back in it. They are tied with the Red Wings for second in the Atlantic with 54 points. The Islanders also have 54- one behind the Rangers. The wildcards are Boston with 53 and New Jersey with 51.
Going further on what Rupp stated, no matter how much the Rangers have struggled their experience can’t be overlooked. Assuming they get in which should be the case in such a mediocre East, they should be a tough out. Henrik Lundqvist gives them a puncher’s chance. There are few goalies I would take over him in a best-of-seven. Even Vezina front runner Braden Holtby hasn’t proven much. The pressure will be immense. Until Carey Price returns, Tuukka Rask is the second most proven goalie, taking the Bruins to a Stanley Cup Final. Marc-Andre Fleury has won a Cup with the Pens. Lundqvist has carried the Rangers to a Stanley Cup Final and guided them to three Final Fours over the last four years. He’s very driven and wants to prove the doubters wrong.
There’s still plenty of proven playoff performers including Derick Brassard, Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider and Ryan McDonagh. All do their best work when it counts. Don’t discount Rick Nash either. Last year’s improvement can certainly help. Obviously, he’s not having a good season with 12 goals and 33 points in 44 games. But Nash is still a possession beast who generates high quality scoring chances. Having Mats Zuccarello back can also help the Blueshirts. On pace for over 20 goals for the first time, he is a strong competitor whose unique blend of skill and will can’t be understated.
Granted. It’s not the same roster. Especially with the struggles of Dan Girardi and Marc Staal. However, both are fully capable of stepping up in the postseason. If Girardi struggles, will Dylan McIlrath play? Right now, the answer is no. Especially with Kevin Klein back and Dan Boyle still on the top power play unit despite defensive deficiencies. Having Keith Yandle for a second run is a must. Otherwise, last year’s trade is a failure. It would be nice if Yandle produced more than two goals. The 22 assists including a brilliant one on Zuccarello’s tying goal are nice. But they can use better production.
The subtraction of speed demon and key penalty killer Carl Hagelin has hurt more than thought. So too has the loss of savvy veteran Martin St. Louis. Like it or not, they lost a lot of production on two lines. The offense has struggled with consistency. J.T. Miller is a player who continues to blossom getting the winner on Tuesday to match his career high of 10 goals from last season. He’s part of the solution. Kevin Hayes remains a question mark. They’ll need better play from him. It would also help if Alain Vigneault trusted Oscar Lindberg. He still prefers vet Dominic Moore down the stretch. Understandable. But Lindberg has 11 goals and needs consistent ice-time. Jesper Fast always gives a honest effort. He’s willing to battle in front screening goalies and deflect pucks like the winner he had in a 1/11 win over Boston. But he’s also blown coverage on the penalty kill.
Much depends on the personnel performing. Having not won two straight since Nov. 21-23, it’s easy to conclude that the Rangers have underachieved. From Nash struggling to finish with only four goals in his last 23 to Lundqvist coming back to earth with arguably the worst stretch of his career which he finally seems recovered from, there hasn’t been any consistency. Top pivots Brassard and Stepan can also be better. Stepan’s game is coming with four points in the last three and a big improvement in faceoffs. Part of it is staying with consistent linemates. Vigneault has mixed and matched searching for the right combos. His top six are Brassard, Nash, Zuccarello, Stepan, Kreider and Miller. Now it’s just about establishing the lines. Considering that Miller had a strong game with Stepan and Kreider, whose confidence is back with points in four straight, Vigneault should put Nash back with Brassard and Zuccarello.
For better or worse, the third line is Lindberg, Hayes and Fast. Unless a trade is made by GM Jeff Gorton to upgrade the roster with limited cap space, they must figure it out. Viktor Stalberg has been much better lately. He can play on the third line when necessary but is a better fit on the fourth line with Moore and energizer Tanner Glass. The fourth line has been the one constant during a odd 6-4-1 stretch. They always battle and forecheck. An area that must improve. They dominated a bad Vancouver team minus Henrik Sedin. That’s a start. Let’s see how they do at Carolina Friday. Ottawa and Buffalo follow before the All-Star break. All are winnable. This is a perfect chance for the Blueshirts to reestablish themselves.
Around The League: If the season ended today, no Canadian team would make the playoffs. Montreal has fallen apart since losing Price. They suffered another loss last night losing 4-1 to the Bruins. They have the least amount of points since Dec. 2. A total of nine. They have 50 points as do the Senators. The Pens would also be out with 49 but have been coming on since Mike Sullivan replaced Mike Johnston. They’re 4-2-3 in the last nine. Not great but getting points and much better production from Sidney Crosby. Since the Johnston firing, he has 18 points (8-10-18) including eight of his 14 total goals. Of the teams on the outside, the Pens are the one to look out for. They just added Hagelin, who should fit in well with Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel. He recorded his first point. A primary assist on a Malkin goal in a 5-2 loss at St. Louis.
Hart Update: 1.Patrick Kane, Chi (30-41-71) 2.Jamie Benn, Dal (26-30-56) 3.Braden Holtby, Wsh (30 W in 38 starts)
Vezina Update: 1.Braden Holtby, Wsh (2.01 GAA, .930 save pct.) 2.Roberto Luongo, Fla (19 W, 2.17, .927) 3.Cory Schneider, NJD (20 W, 2.03, .929) 4.Corey Crawford, Chi (27 W, 2.14, .931, 6 SHO)
Norris Update: 1.Drew Doughty, LAK (8-18-26, +17) 2.Erik Karlsson, Ott (9-38-47) 3.Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Ari (13-20-33) 4.Brent Burns, San (18-23-41)
Selke Update: 1.Anze Kopitar, LAK (13-27-40, +20, 53.2 FO pct.) 2.Patrice Bergeron, Bos (18-23-41, +10, 56.7 FO pct.), 3.Jonathan Toews, Chi (19-16-35, +16, 58.4 FO pct.)
Calder Update: 1.Artemi Panarin, Chi (16-29-45), 2.Dylan Larkin, Det (14-16-30, +22) 3.Max Domi, Ari (13-18-31) 4.Colton Parayko, Stl (6-13-19, +17) 5.Jack Eichel, Buf (14-15-29) 6.Shayne Gostisbere, Phi (8-9-17) 7.Connor Hellebuyck, Wpg (11 W, 2.00, .932) 8.John Gibson, Ana (9 W, 1.90, .923, 4 SHO)
Jack Adams Update: 1.Dave Tippett, Ari (22-18-5, 49 Pts, 3rd Pacific) 2.Barry Trotz, Wsh (35-8-3, 73, 1st overall) 3.John Hynes, NJD (23-19-5, 51, 2nd Wildcard) 4.Gerard Gallant, Fla (26-15-5, 57, 1st Atlantic)