The New York Rangers have advanced to the Eastern Conference finals for the second time in the last three seasons after coming back from a 3-1 series deficit to defeat the Pittsburgh Penguins in a best-of-7 for the first time in franchise history.
After two convincing victories in games 5 and 6, Henrik Lundqvist stole the show in the decisive game 7 making 35 saves on 36 shots and furthering his illustrious game 7 resume. King Henrik is now 5-1 in his career in game 7s with a 1.00 goals against average and a 9.65 save percentage. Throughout the playoffs Lundqvist played well but with his inflated expectations Rangers fans knew that at some point he would steal a game. In typical best goalie on earth fashion, he saved his finest performance to date for the most important game thus far, game 7 against the Penguins. Lundqvist stopped 35 of the 36 shots he faced, leading the Rangers into the next round.
Down 3-1, the momentum seemed to shift when newcomer Martin St. Louis showed incredible professionalism and guts not missing a single game despite losing his mother in the midst of the series. As if that was not enough of a testament of character, the 39-year-old veteran went on to score the first goal of the game in game 6 on mothers day, appeasing a Madison Square Garden Crowd that cheered his name from the puck drop.
As the Rangers continue to prove they are a tough team to beat when their backs are against a wall, Henrik Lundqvist continues to prove that there is no other goaltender you would want in net in a must win situation. It will be important for the Rangers to play with this level of urgency night in and night out if they want to beat the top level opponents who await them.
The Rangers have cause for celebration and reasons to be cautiously optimistic after grinding out another victory in seven games.
Big Names Remain Dormant:
It has been well advertised that Rick Nash leads the NHL Playoffs in shots despite remaining scoreless. His play has continued to be strong in lieu of the statistics but his line has not delivered a performance that would be expected of them. With Derek Stepan also struggling, Rangers fans hoped that the return of Chris Kreider would spark the line into action but thus far that change has not yet come and they remains perhaps the least productive of the four offensive units to this point in the playoffs.
It is easy consider this concerning as the Rangers will need their top unit to be producing at a high level to be a serious title contenders. However, there is a positive takeaway. Beating two very talented teams in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh without these key players producing is a sign of very strong depth within the Rangers roster and if the law of averages can translate to a few of Nash’s shots lighting the lamp, the Rangers will be a formidable opponent for whoever awaits them in the next series.
Chris Kreider only returned to the lineup for the final four games of the series and both Stepan and Nash played their best hockey this season with that line arrangement. If Kreider can play the top notch hockey he did this regular season and create some synergy with his linemates it could provide a spark to a line that could very well be the x-factor for the Rangers going forward.
Shutting Down the Stars:
For the second straight series, the Rangers were able to shut down some of their opponent’s key players. Last round they shut down Giroux and Hartnell while containing Simmonds. In this series they shut down Crosby and Neal and were able to prevent Malkin from getting into a rhythm or score in the final two games despite his success early in the series. Crosby had only one goal in the series while Neal was held scoreless.
Shutting down players of that caliber is often a team effort but the main cause was the Rangers blue line, which surpassed their incredible first round effort by upping the ante and slowing down even higher profile stars. Marc Staal has been a dark horse MVP for the blueshirts thus far and Anton Stralman leads the team in plus-minus at +7. The biggest improvement from the first to second round was the play of Ryan McDonagh. Though it took him until the final couple games of the second round to regain full form, it was extremely encouraging to see the Rangers best defender this regular season get back into his groove after looking completely out of character for most of the playoffs. Along side the ever reliable Dan Girardi, this top unit will have to continue its elite play against future competition for the Rangers to succeed. If his resurgence is indicative of things to come, the Rangers defense could be a major catalyst in getting eight more wins.
It has been quite some time since the line of Zuccarello-Brassard-Pouliot took New York by storm. Their ability to remain productive and be the Rangers most effective line in the pressures of the Eastern Conference Semifinals is impressive. Poul and the Gang, the best nickname for this unit to date, have picked up where they left off in the regular season and first round. Their extremely aggressive style helped Derrick Brassard lead the Rangers in scoring for the second round. All series, NBC Sports analysts took notice of this group of spare parts that has become a juggernaut of a line. They have picked up the slack of the first line and show no signs of slowing down as they continue to turn out quality shift after quality shift regardless of what lines or goaltenders they go up against.
Special teams has been a hot topic this playoffs and the Rangers have continued with their strong penalty kill. As for the streaky powerplay, the last few times it has hit the ice it has generated shots, scoring chances and most importantly goals. The Rangers have lived and died by the success of the powerplay and hopefully this recent hot streak is not a sign of a drought on the horizon. With elite competition to follow, it will be important for the blueshirts to capitalize when they are a man up.
The Rangers will look next to an original six matchup with either the Montreal Canadiens or Boston Bruins. The next 8 to 14 games will be a date with destiny and a battle against history. They are going into the Eastern Conference Finals with a three game win streak and incomprehensible momentum. However, they will be attempting to become the first team in NHL history to win a cup after playing seven games in the first two rounds.
When the Rangers traded for Martin St. Louis midseason it was clearly an attempt to make a serious run at the Stanley Cup in the next couple of years. Now that they have advanced to the final four, they have officially given up two first round picks for the veteran and only a Stanley Cup can cement that deal in history as a success. Despite having played the maximum amount of games, the Rangers have not played much overtime in comparison to teams like Chicago or Los Angeles. Before they worry about those teams, the Rangers will have to face the best goaltender they have to date in either Price or Rask.
In a season that many feel has a benchmark of championship or bust, the resilient Rangers are on the right path.