Derek Stepan celebrates with happy teammates Marc Staal and Dan Girardi after his 20th goal helped wrap up a sixth straight postseason for the Rangers who won 4-2 over the Blue Jackets Monday in Columbus on April 4, 2016. AP Photo by Jay LaPrete/Getty Images
“If at first you don’t succeed, you can dust yourself off and try again.”-Aaliyah
It took long enough. Finally on the third try, the Rangers clinched the playoff in a 4-2 road win over the Blue Jackets and former coach John Tortorella. Their sixth straight postseason berth and 10th in the last 11 since the lockout is a good achievement. It demonstrates the consistency they’ve had since Henrik Lundqvist helped the franchise reach the playoff in his rookie year of ’05-06.
”It’s tough to get to the dance,” coach Alain Vigneault pointedly said afterwards. ”People don’t realize how hard it is to be able to get an opportunity to play for the Stanley Cup. We finally got our checkmark. We can still work for home ice and that’s what we’re going to try and do.”
Of course, he’s right. Even if I don’t always agree with his lineup decisions. However, whether it be Tom Renney, Tortorella or Vigneault, the Rangers usually do what it takes to reach the playoffs. Unlike last season when they had the league’s best record, it was a little harder this time. More inconsistent throughout, they battled through. In the win over the Jackets, they battled adversity overcoming the loss of top defenseman Ryan McDonagh. The team captain was injured late in the first period after blocking a shot.
”It was a big block but it was a hard shot as well,” Lundqvist said after making 27 saves to pick up his 34th victory. ”I don’t know much. I haven’t talked to him yet. Obviously he’s a big piece here so hopefully it’s not something too serious.”
For now, McDonagh will be re-evaluated by the team medical staff per Vigneault. It’s being termed a “upper body” injury. While it’s a legit concern with three games remaining including tonight’s match against the banged up Lightning, now is not the time to panic. We’ll just have to wait and see. Hope for the best. If he’s out for any amount of time with the playoffs beginning the following week, then it’ll be time to get worried.
The team deserves credit for getting the job done. In McDonagh’s absence, team leader Marc Staal stepped up with one of his strongest games of the season, logging a game high 25:33 over 31 shifts. That included 4:05 shorthanded with the Blueshirts down a man late with Mats Zuccarello off for high-sticking. Trailing by one, Columbus pulled Joonas Korpisalo for a six-on-four advantage. The game wasn’t sealed until a Derek Stepan steal and cool backhand into a vacated net for his 20th with 1:11 left.
Stepan continues to play well netting a goal and helper giving him 11 points (4-7-11) in the past seven games. His off and on again running mate Chris Kreider also stayed hot recording his second straight 20-goal season while setting up another. It’s been a whirlwind third full season for Kreider but he is back to playing a straight forward north-south power game. That’s resulted in four goals and three assists over the last five. They’re gonna need him for any kind of run.
Dan Boyle and Zuccarello were the other goalscorers. It’s never easy for this team. Twice, they led by a pair of goals only to see Nick Foligno tally twice to pull the Jackets within one. On his second with 9:15 remaining in the third, he was able to beat Kevin Klein to the outside and bank one in off Boyle for a odd goal that squeaked past Lundqvist. A fragile team who struggles when leading, the Rangers held on.
”I really liked the way we played in the first two periods,” Vigneault noted after his team put three past Korpisalo on 25 shots thru 40 minutes. ”I think it was evident in the third that we were a little nervous. There was a lot on the line but we got it done.”
There’s no doubt they’ll have to be better. Once the postseason starts, the Jekyll & Hyde act won’t work against tougher competition. At this point, they remain locked into third place in the division two points up on the Islanders, who got a much needed home win over the Lightning. With 97 points and 41 regulation/overtime wins (ROW), they trail the second place Penguins by three. Both have three left while the Isles have four including a big Thursday clash at MSG.
It’s important for the team to finish strong. They want to go in with more confidence. With three good tests against potential playoff foes including Tampa, the Isles and the Red Wings, it’s a preview of what’s to come. As for what to expect, it’s hard to predict. This isn’t as good a team as the past two years. They’re capable. But there remain unanswered questions.
Vigneault continues to go with his vets which means neither Dylan McIlrath nor Oscar Lindberg is likely to see the ice. Assuming McDonagh can’t go later, the organization is expected to recall someone from Hartford. My guess would be Brady Skjei, who is the left-handed skating defenseman Vigneault prefers. It’s unfair to McIlrath, who proved he could play in the up-tempo system while having the size and strength to clear the crease. Something no other blueliner does consistently.
As for Lindberg, it’s a numbers game. He’s not breaking into the lineup over Kevin Hayes, who has found chemistry on the third line with Eric Staal and Jesper Fast. For all the gripes about Tanner Glass, he continues to fit in on the grinding fourth line with Dominic Moore and Viktor Stalberg. Glass had another good night delivering a big hit that drew a penalty and also set up a couple of chances. While I don’t agree with him playing daily, it’s what Vigneault wants. As long as he stays responsible and provides energy, it won’t change.
With the postseason now assured, it’s all about how the roster performs when it counts. Everyone gets a clean slate after 82 games. That means anything can happen. Nobody can discount a experienced club who’s been through the playoff grind. The only difference is I’m going in expecting nothing. I’ll just root like hell for them and say a silent prayer.