With a playoff berth all but locked up for the New York Rangers, we look forward toward potential playoff match-ups. Of course, we have mostly forgotten our bold proclamations that expectations would be met and thirsts quenched with nothing more than a playoff appearance. But as is human nature, greed follows accumulation of wealth and we all want more; some are even bold enough to run the phrase "We want the Cup!" through their minds for the briefest of moments.
The last thing I want to do is to chastise these dreamers. Hope is the lifeblood of professional sports, the only way to attract millions of fans to a team whose mathematical odds of success are 3% in any given season. It would be especially ambitious to bury a team that has gone 8-1-1 in the last 10 games, and would play 3 of 4 rounds in a conference with no distinct top dog. No, instead I come to analyze these hopes and demonstrate where this team stands currently, what they do well, and what they need to do better to justify the dreaming.
It begins, as it should and as it often does in the playoffs, with goaltending. More than enough has been said about the abilities and successes of Henrik Lundqvist.
But merely citing a 2.24 GAA (5th among goalies with 50+ starts), .924 Sv% (4th) and a league high 11 shutouts does not suffice. The most important attribute of the Swedish 29 year old is his clutch play. Throughout the course of the season he does surrender "soft goals" and they occasionally come at key moments in the game. But as the weather warms, so does The King, and he transforms from a very good goalie into a great one. We have seen goalies steal more than one series, there is no reason why Lundqvist can't do the same.
Depth is another key playoff word. We have seen it in Detroit, Pittsburgh and Chicago and in a league of parity it has become a recipe for success. Though Marc Staal (25:39 TOI/G) may do his best to convince you otherwise, a team's top defensive player cannot stay on the ice for all 60 minutes. If a team can get its scorers on the ice against inferior defensive units, the chance of victory skyrockets. The Rangers have one of the deepest teams with 9 forwards who tallied double-digits in goals. They also have five players who have potted 20, and one in Anisimov (18) who may just get there before the year ends. The "4th line" has combined for 43 goals on the season, approximately 42 more than could be counted on from the likes of a Hollweg-Betts-Orr combo that we have seen in years past. Depth will certainly be a huge advantage for this team in the closely defended playoff-style games.
Of course, we would be remiss not to mention the outstanding defense, both as a position and as a system. The Rangers don't allow too many pucks through to Henrik Lundqvist, placing 10th in shots allowed per game with 29.3 shots.
But again, that stat does not tell the whole story. The Blueshirts are extremely prolific shot blockers (4th, 1213), led by Dan Girardi and his league leading (by far) 213 blocks. As a team, they collapse around the front of the net and force shots from the outside. The few that do get through are much easier for Lundqvist to handle than, say a one-timer from the slot. They also are a punishing defense, leading the league with a whopping 2164 hits, so even if you beat them, they still beat you. Overall, the system is perfect for playoff hockey and almost mimics the efficiency of the Renney system without sacrificing as much offense.
Honorable Mentions: Penalty Kill (11th, 83.4%; 4th, 11 SHG), Youth (10th, 26.973 average age)
Toews and Kane. Crosby and Malkin. Datsyuk and Zetterberg. Elite scorers all, who just happened to have won it all once in the past three years. But it is certainly not happenstance that the recent Cup winners have had at least two elite scorers climbing over the boards every two and a half minutes.
This is a purely causal relationship: the objective of the game is to outscore opponents, so the more people who can help in that task, the better. So while we talked about depth as the offensive strength of the Rangers, the weakness is clearly top-end scoring talent. To this point not one Ranger has scored 25 goals this year. The team's best forward, Marian Gaborik, has been inconsistent at best and a liability at worst. And while 4 other players have potted 20+ goals, none of them are players who can take over a game, not yet at least. In 2009 we watched Ovechkin take over the 1st round series against the Rangers, shooting post-shattering bullets from all angles. He almost singlehandedly brought his team back from a 3-1 series deficit. With no individual to rely on, the Rangers' entire team will need to play a near-perfect game to win it. This is no easy task in a grueling playoff series and it may just be New York's downfall.
Puck possession is a key word in the Tortorella system, and his club has been mightily effective at winning pucks in no-man's-land.
But pucks in the hand of the official has been a whole different story. Face-offs are a game-changer. A lost defensive zone draw can turn into a goal faster than you can say "Colony Grill Pizza" (extra points if you got the reference). Draws also have a tremendous effect on special teams, where puck possession is the difference between multiple scoring chances and chasing the puck 200 feet down the ice. Rangers centers have been so ineffective (28th, 47.1%) that wingers have begun taking draws, and even poor line match-ups have been thrown out on the ice to get a specialist in the circle. The only way to even justify the existence of Chris Drury has been to cite his face-off prowess. So aside from the problems caused by a lost draw, the steps taken to correct it have had ill effects on other parts of the game.
I know, I know - I gave an honorable mention to youth as a strength of this team, and it some respects it is good to be fresh, full of energy, full of belief. But the players that the team relies heavily on are all young and inexperienced. Teams benefit from having a veteran player who has ability to lead a team on the stat-sheet as well as in the locker room. When an experienced hockey player has a big game, it can have a calming effect on the younger players. They don't feel like they have to win it all by themselves. This problem will be exacerbated by the lack of elite scorer, and we may find Dubinsky or Stepan pressing a bit too hard (as we have seen them do in the past), only to become ineffective at the worst possible time.
Power Play (13th, 17.8%; better of late).
Every team in the Eastern Conference has some issues,
some more serious than others. Can the Rangers go far in spite of their weaknesses? Possibly, but probably not. The way to take advantage of the wide open draw is to minimize the weaknesses, no easy task at this point of the season, and maximize the strengths. Someone needs to step up and go on a scoring rampage. Someone needs to seize the moment and lead the team to victory. As John Tortorella likes to say, "Stay the course." Play within the system, a system built around the personnel, but also step it up to another level.
This New York, after all. Where all you need is a dollar and a dream.