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As the Trade Deadline Approaches, Did We Just See a Rangers Playoff Preview?

If the NHL season ended today, the second-seed Lightning would face the seventh-seed Rangers in the first round of the playoffs — a rematch of yesterday's 2–1 Tampa Bay win at the Garden. Not only did Tampa win all four meetings between the teams last year, but they also reminded us yesterday that even in a game in which the Rangers contained Steven Stamkos, there's enough talent elsewhere on the roster to earn a victory. (Not that anyone needed to be reminded of, say, Martin St. Louis, but still.) Having said all that: Tampa Bay didn't exactly skate all over the Rangers yesterday, even if the result was the same as so many games of late.

Tampa Bay scored twice on one-timers to Henrik Lundqvist's left: one by St. Louis to cap a rush caused by a bad Dan Girardi pass from behind the Lightning net, and another on a perfect Vincent Lecavalier blast on a five-on-three during which Girardi was in the penalty box for what John Tortorella would call a "bullshit" penalty after the game. (That was the only goal the conference-best Lightning power play would score, in six opportunities.) The Rangers struggled at times with their forecheck yesterday, and the New Power Play Starring Bryan McCabe didn't generate any goals, but like so many of their losses lately, it was hardly a disastrous effort, against one of the best teams in hockey.

All of which makes today's trade deadline an interesting one: The Rangers have established themselves as a young, hardworking team — one that's being constructed for the long-term. They've stockpiled young talent, and the hope is that as these kids mature, they'll form the core of the team for years to come. (Obviously, the first wave of homegrown talent has already proven its value, but they've been joined by another promising group this year.) That said, it's hard not to notice how small the difference has been in many of the Rangers losses of late. (Since January 2, every Rangers loss has been by either one goal or two goals in which the opposition scored an empty-netter to seal their victory.)

We'll know in a couple of hours if Glen Sather will be tempted enough by dreams of a playoff run this spring to add Brad Richards, who we'll note will be a free agent after the season and is currently sidelined with concussion symptoms. The asking price for Richards has reportedly dropped — according to Larry Brooks, the Stars had hilariously been asking for Marc Staal, Brandon Dubsinsky, and Derek Stepan — but unlike their low-risk acquisition of McCabe to (hopefully) bolster the power play, the addition of an elite center won't come cheap. If it comes at all.

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Photo: Scott Levy/NHLI via Getty Images