With just six weeks to go in the regular season, the New York Rangers (34-24-9, 77 points) find themselves in almost the same position they were in last year at this point in the season: in the thick of an Eastern Conference playoff race.
The road to this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs will not be an easy one for the Blueshirts as 12 of the team’s remaining 16 games are against divisional opponents (New Jersey Devils: 3; Pittsburgh Penguins: 3; Philadelphia Flyers: 2; New York Islanders: 3). The Rangers currently find themselves tied for 6/7th with the Boston Bruins (35-24-7) in the conference with 77 points and just six points behind the Atlantic Division leading Pittsburgh Penguins (38-23-7, 83 points).
For the Rangers to have a strong finish, they will need to continue what they have been doing over the past few weeks and that’s scoring goals. After being at the bottom of the league in goals scored for most of the season, the team has suddenly caught fire and is finding their scoring touch from all parts of the line-up.
Leading the way for the blueshirts are Chris Drury (22-26-48) and Brendan Shanahan (21-19-40), who each have 21 goals and who are going to have to continue to score down the stretch when goals are tougher to come by. Team captain Jaromir Jagr (17-40-57) has just 17 goals this year but has recently come alive, scoring two goals in his last four games while also having seven points in his last five games. Scott Gomez (14-51-65) has also been a force for the Rangers as he finds himself as the team’s leading scorer with 65 points.
The team has also been getting contributions from its youngsters as forwards Brandon Dubinsky (13-18-31 and Nigel Dawes (11-11-22) are finding their groove in the National Hockey League by going to the net, being creative with the puck and connecting with their linemates. For the team to be successful going into the playoffs, these kids will need to continue to step-up and play in the roles that head coach Tom Renney has put them in.
As with any sport, teams fighting for a playoff spot or trying to put themselves in a better position need a spark plug and for the Rangers, that spark plug will always be Sean Avery (11-14-25). While he may not be talking to the media right now, his play is certainly doing all the talking on the ice as he has five goals and seven points in his last seven games while also meshing well with Jagr and Dubinsky. Ranger fans better hope him and general manager Glen Sather come to some sort of agreement when it comes to contract talk.
Going into the playoffs, the team will also need some depth and one guy they hope that can provide that on either the third or fourth line is Fredrik Sjostrom (11-9-20), recently acquired from the Phoenix Coyotes. Things didn’t work out in Arizona quite the way Sjostrom wanted to but under the lights of Broadway, things can change in a hurry, as Sojostrom showed in yesterday’s 5-4 victory over the Flyers when he scored his first goal as a Ranger. He’s played so well in his first two games as a Blueshirt that he may put winger Ryan Hollweg (2-1-3) out of a job.
Defensively, the Rangers will need to play the way they have been for most of the season: responsibly. Going into the stretch, the Rangers are fifth in the league in goals-against and have given the team a chance to win many games during the course of the season.
Michal Rozsival (13-22-35) continues to be the Rangers top defensemen in terms of scoring output (third among NHL defensemen in goals scored), blocked shots and ice time. In last year’s playoff, Rozsival was a warrior scoring seven points, averaging over 24 minutes of ice time and blocking 25 shots. The Rangers will need him to do all of those things down the stretch if they want to be successful come playoff time.
Second-year defenseman Daniel Girardi (8-17-25) has been one of the team’s most consistent players throughout the season. He rarely turns over the pucks, he is always in position, he’s not afraid to play the body and he has also been able to contribute on the offensive side. The same could be said of rookie Marc Staal (2-7-9). While he may not have the offensive prowess of a Rozsival or Girardi, his defensive play speaks for itself as he has been one of the team’s most steady players on the back line, using his long reach and body to help create turnovers and giving his club a chance to create some offense.
The Rangers will also need Marek Malik (1-7-8), the target of Garden jeers throughout much of the last two seasons, to play the way he is capable of playing. When he is on his game, he is a solid outlet passer and will not be afraid to take the body in front of the net.
While offense and defense are obviously two critical components that all hockey teams need to succeed, the one big factor that can put a club over the top is goaltending and the Rangers have that in Henrik Lundqvist (29-21-7-8SO-2.37 GAA-.907Sv%). However, he will need to pick up his play after allowing six goals in his last two games on 28 shots.
Backup goaltender Stephen Valiquette (5-3-2-2SO-2.13 GAA-.917Sv%) has been solid for the team by picking up three crucial wins (two of them shutouts in Philly) against the Flyers.
The Rangers have all the pieces in place to help them not only secure a solid playoff position, but to also give them a chance to be the team to come out of the Eastern Conference. Fate, as they say, is in their hands.