The NHL playoffs are rapidly approaching, and the New York Rangers are widely considered serious Cup contenders. With just 13 games remaining in the regular season, it’s no longer a question of whether the Blueshirts will get into the postseason, but rather what they need to do from here on out in the final stretch of games to further increase their chances at a deep playoff run.
Here are three keys for the Rangers as they get set for the 2014-15 postseason.
Every team deals with injuries. It’s the way of the NHL, and most professional sports for that matter, but with the position the Rangers find themselves in with the expectations as high as they’re becoming, the Rangers are going to need their team at full health come mid-April. Lucky for them, there is still a little time, and if the forecasted returns hold true, things should turn out just fine.
The first and most notable injury is of course that of netminder Henrik Lundqvist. Lundqvist, who has been sidelined since the beginning of February with a neck injury after taking a puck to the throat against Carolina, was medically cleared on Tuesday to return to practice. This was of course tremendous news for the organization and its fans, for as incredible as Cam Talbot has been for the team in the absence of the King, Lundqvist remains the man who will make an already formidable opponent that much better.
Lundqvist’s return could not come at a better time, as the next few weeks should be enough time so that come playoffs, he is primed and well rested for the grind of the second season.
Next was standout defenseman Kevin Klein. Klein, who has played admirably this season following the off-season departure of Anton Stralman with nine goals for 26 points, recently suffered an upper body injury (presumably to his arm/elbow) after taking an Alex Ovechkin shot head on in the waning seconds of the Rangers’ March 11th win over the Capitals.
The original timetable had Klein out 3-4 weeks, which if accurate, would put his return right around the end of the regular season. While missing the final stretch of games is obviously not ideal, if Klein, who has become an integral member of the Rangers defense core, is able to return come the start of the postseason that would have to be considered a pretty big victory.
And finally, there’s 39-year-old Martin St. Louis, who fell victim to an apparent knee injury during Sunday’s game against Florida. While his overall point production has seen a drop-off this season, the veteran winger has still netted 20 goals, and has been an important member of the team’s top-six forwards for the entirety of the season.
As of Monday, St. Louis was slated to be absent from the lineup for 10-14 days. Like Klein’s injury, that is a whole lot better than what it could’ve been, and should on paper be timed well with regard to the start of the playoffs.
And we all know what St. Louis is capable come springtime…
This probably could’ve fallen under the umbrella of getting healthy, but regardless, this is pretty important moving forward.
Before the injury ninja’s latest strike on Broadway, the Rangers had a pretty good thing going – this is not to say that they’re playing badly, because they most certainly are not – but a shakeup was necessary particularly amongst the top-nine forwards. The biggest change came to what had become over the last month one of the Rangers’ most consistent lines, and that was the trio of Hayes, Hagelin, and Miller, otherwise known as MH2.
With St. Louis sidelined on Wednesday against Chicago, rookie Kevin Hayes was moved up to the wing alongside Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello, while recently acquired James Sheppard was inserted into the third line center slot where Hayes had been playing between Miller and Hagelin.
As of Friday’s practice those lines were again shuffled, with Hayes going back to the third line center slot, Miller moving up to the second line, and Stepan and Brassard swapping spots on the top-two lines.
NYR prax lines: 20-21-61; 36-16-10; 62-13-19; 15-28-45. Thinking Talbot will start vs Canes. More to come
— Steve Zipay (@stevezipay) March 20, 2015
While the current setup is far from a disaster thanks to the teams impressive depth, if full health returns before the playoffs, putting the lines back to the way they were pre-injuries would be ideal. The top-six would go back to what it had been for the majority of the season, while the MH2 line would be reunited and the fourth line could go back to being, well, the fourth line.
The Rangers had jam and chemistry for some time there, and while it’s too soon to say it’s gone, it is not too early to hope that those lines can be reunited, for the squad over the past month looked like one capable of winning the East, and then some.
Fine Tune the Power Play
This may be last, but it most certainly is not least. To put it bluntly, the Rangers power play has been pretty powerless in recent days, and what once was a man-advantage which ranked in the league’s top-10, has now fallen to 20th with a 17.4 percent conversion rate. Worse yet, the Blueshirts have gone 0 for their last 16 on the power play over the last six games, and have just three power play goals in their last 41 opportunities dating back to March 4th.
Sorry, but that just isn’t very good.
While Keith Yandle is presumably still acclimating to life as a Ranger, the hope certainly would be that his presence will in time help the power play regain some of the momentum that it had earlier in the season. With the very real possibility of a first round date with the red-hot Boston Bruins, the Rangers are going to need an effective power play more than ever.
Lucky for the Rangers, instead of worrying about whether or not the playoffs will be in their future, they can spend some time fine tuning some areas of the game which could use some improvement. The power play would be one of those areas.
The Final Push
When it boils down to it, the Rangers are not in danger of missing the playoffs. They’re sitting comfortably near the top of the league standings with 44 wins and 95 points. These final 13 games are not about clawing their way into the playoffs, but instead they’re about refining the details, polishing their game, getting healthy, and ensuring that the chemistry of the last month sticks around long enough for a deep and prolonged run into the post-season.
Jake Gittler is now in his second season as a contributing member of The Hockey Writers. After spending the 2014-15 season working in Communications for Adirondack Flames of the AHL and covering the New York Rangers here for The Hockey Writers, Jake’s coverage has been switched over to the Colorado Avalanche for the 2015-16 season. Jake can be reached via email at Jakegittler@gmail.com, or on Twitter @Jgittler_hockey.