Last spring, the Rangers put together their deepest playoff run in over a decade, when they advanced to the Eastern Conference Final but fell in six games to the Devils. Tonight, after a lockout-shortened regular season, they kick off their 2013 run against the Capitals in Washington. Here, now, ten story lines you should know as their postseason gets under way.
1. This season, so far, has been a disappointment. We’ve covered this before, but last year, the Rangers finished the regular season with the best record in the Eastern Conference and advanced to the conference finals for the first time since 1997. They appeared to have a team that could contend this year for the Stanley Cup … but wound up spending a lot of time in the vicinity of the playoff bubble, eventually securing a berth during the season’s final week. They enter the 2013 playoffs as the No. 6 seed. (They owned the tie-breaker with Ottawa, the seventh seed, and finished one point ahead of the No. 8 Islanders.)
2. Rick Nash, on the other hand, has not been a disappointment. Last summer, the Rangers pulled off a blockbuster trade in which they acquired elite goal-scorer Rick Nash from the Columbus Blue Jackets. Nash was generally as good as advertised this season: He led the Rangers with 21 goals and finished second in points — and on a per-game basis, he posted his best scoring numbers since 2008–09. He’s also hella fun to watch: A disproportionate number of his goals are of the highlight-film variety. This assist from earlier this season was particularly awesome:
3. Everyone’s about to start paying attention to John Tortorella’s press conferences. The Rangers’ coach is notoriously prickly, particularly after his team’s losses. Come playoff time, he’s willing to offer even less to the media, and his postgame pressers can be comically short. It reached a point last year where he himself became a story because of these things, and there’s little reason to think he won’t behave the same way this season. Hockey writers, start your stopwatches.
4. Henrik Lundqvist got better as the season went on. It’s easy to take the Rangers’ goalie for granted sometimes, but he turned in another fine season. He got better as his team approached the finish line during this sprint of a season, posting a .934 save percentage in April and recording his only two shutouts of the season during that month. His numbers weren’t quite as good as they were during his Vezina season last year, but that’s a very high standard, and he still won his seventh consecutive team MVP award.
5. The Rangers were busy at the trade deadline. In order to add depth, the Rangers traded away one of their best players — winger Marian Gaborik, who led them in scoring last year but had been struggling this year. That trade with Columbus brought back a package including forward Derick Brassard, defenseman John Moore, and the injured Derek Dorsett. In a separate deal with the Sharks, they added Ryane Clowe (a good fit on a Tortorella-coached team), and around the same time, they also brought back Mats “the Norwegian Hobbit” Zuccarello, albeit not in a trade. Tortorella said yesterday that without these moves, he believes the Rangers would not have qualified for the playoffs.
6. The Rangers finished strong … but not as strong as Washington. The moves at the deadline may not have been the only reason why, but the Rangers played their best hockey over the season’s final month. They went 10-3-1 in April, and won five of their last six games. Washington, though, is even hotter: They finished April 11-1-1 and won the Southeast Division, though they finished just one point ahead of the Rangers.
7. Brad Richards looks like Brad Richards again. Like Gaborik, Richards really struggled for much of the season. There was buzz about the team possibly buying him out in the off-season, and Rangers fans grew frustrated with the big-money center’s inability to find the net. But Richards, like his team, enters the postseason playing his best hockey of the year: His six April goals were more than he’d scored in January, February, and March combined, and he finished the month with sixteen points, more than twice the number he’d had in any previous month this season. Richards, a former Conn Smythe winner, has a reputation as a good playoff performer, and he was responsible for perhaps the highlight of last season, when he scored in the final seconds to send Game 5 of the division semis against the Capitals to overtime. Whether he turns in a strong postseason this year remains to be seen, but at the very least, he appears to be peaking at the right time.
8. They’re dealing with some injuries. The biggest of these, by a mile, is the injury to Marc Staal. The defenseman had been having a fantastic year when he got hit in the eye with a puck on March 5. (It was particularly frustrating to see Staal suffer another injury, considering how he’d worked his way back from concussion issues last year.) He appears to be getting closer to returning, but is unlikely to play tonight. Elsewhere in the lineup, Ryane Clowe was injured in the playoff-clincher in Carolina, and while the Rangers won’t say much about the injury, it’s believed he could have suffered a concussion. Clowe, whom the Rangers will miss in the playoffs, did not practice yesterday. Brian Boyle, who had a miserable regular season, is hurt as well, and also didn’t practice yesterday.
9. They’ve got a lot of recent postseason history with the Capitals. This will be the fourth time in five years that the Rangers and Caps will have met in the postseason. In 2009, the Rangers came close to upsetting No. 2 seed Washington in the first round, but the Capitals rallied back from a 3-1 series deficit and won Game 7 on a late goal by Sergei Fedorov. Two years later, Washington eliminated the Rangers in five games in the first round, though that series was a bit closer than it sounds. (The lowlight of that series for the Rangers was blowing a 3-0 lead in Game 4, with a chance to even the series at two games apiece.) Then last year, the Rangers won a thrilling series in which the teams alternated victories for seven games. The series included a triple-overtime game, a crazy finish to Game 5 (the one Richards tied late), and, ultimately, a Rangers win in Game 7.
10. The Rangers remain a very likable team, especially because of their homegrown players. The biggest story line of the last five or so years has been the emergence of homegrown Rangers. Ryan Callahan continues to be not just an ideal captain but a hell of a hockey player. (He played with a bit more flash to his game this year; Nash isn’t the only player on this team capable of getting on a highlight reel.) Derek Stepan had his best season, setting career highs in goals per game and assists per game. (One of their most consistent players, he led the Rangers in scoring with 44 points.) The list goes on: Dan Girardi, Carl Hagelin, and, of course, Lundqvist are a big part of this team, as is Ryan McDonagh, who isn’t technically homegrown but was acquired before he ever played in the NHL. The biggest disappointment on this front: Chris Kreider, who burst onto the scene during the postseason last year, spent much of the season in the minors after getting off to a slow start in the NHL.