After a record setting regular season that saw the Rangers set franchise records for points and away wins, as well as winning the franchise’s third Presidents Trophy it’s time to get the real season underway. But none of that matters anymore so throw it all away, the playoffs are a new season. There’s a reason they say just get to the tourny and anything can happen. Well that doesn’t just apply to the lowest seeded team but to the highest seeded team as well. Nothing comes easy in the playoffs and nothing can be taken for granted.
I know you can technically say what I’m about to say about every Presidents Trophy winner every year but there really is no reason why the Rangers shouldn’t win the Cup this year. Last year’s team came just three wins away from the Cup and there is no question that this year’s team is even better.
Look at the breakdown between the top three lines last year and this year.
Kreider – Stepan – Nash
Hagelin – Richards – St. Louis
Zuccarello – Brassard – Pouliot
Zuccarello – Brassard – Nash
Kreider – Stepan – Miller
Hagelin – Hayes – St. Louis
Let’s look at it this way. Brassard and Zucc move up from the third line last year to the top line this year. Even if Nash regresses from his career high 42 goal season into his god awful last years playoff Nash, that’s not much of a drop off from Benoit Pouliot. Nash wasn’t as bad as some people, myself included, made him out to be last year, he just had the worlds worst puck luck. Either way I don’t expect him to repeat that, he seemed to run out of steam in March this year, but things picked back up in April for him and I expect that to continue in the playoffs.
Stepan and Kreider drop down the second line. The two of them were pretty productive as the top line last year and that’s despite getting almost nothing from Nash. This year J.T. Miller steps in to replace him. After an up and down start to the season, Miller has really come into his own over the past few weeks. He was moved up into the top six a few weeks ago when Marty St. Louis got hurt and since then he hasn’t allowed Alain Vigneault to even consider taking him out of that spot.
Hagelin and St. Louis drop down to the third line which at this point just isn’t fair. Hagelin’s speed is a nightmare for opposing teams in the playoffs and creates countless chances for the Rangers. He still has that whole can’t finish problem but at this point you take what you can get from him. The real difference in this line is in the middle with rookie Kevin Hayes replacing Brad Richards. Richards wasn’t the same player the past two years as he was earlier in his career, and Kevin Hayes is a rookie who gets better each and every game. I know he only played 40 something games a year in college, and now he’s played in 82 this year, but Hayes is still primed to have a monster post season.
On the blueline Anton Stralman was a huge contributor last year. While losing him hurts Kevin Klein is better then him defensively and has contributed more offensively this season then Stralman ever did. Brian Boyle may not have been as great as everyone expected, but along with Keith Yandle, the Rangers bottom pair of defenseman were both top pair players on Western Conference playoff teams just last year. With the bottom four d-men AV can mix and match them all he wants in any situation.
The Rangers are a bigger, stronger, faster, and deeper team this year when they were last year. In previous years it was always how far can Henrik Lundqvist take this team. This year it’s different. When Lundqvist went down with his injury in late January not only did the Rangers not miss a beat but they got better. While Cam Talbot was tremendous, the Rangers really proved that it’s not on Lundqvist to carry the whole team on his back this season. Don’t get me wrong, he’s still our best player, but this team has proven they can more and carry their goaltender at times, which hopefully means they’ll have to rely on Lundqvist to get them 2-1 wins less often.
My biggest concern with the playoffs right now is how nonchalant everyone is being about the playoffs. It almost seems like everyone is saying “we made the finals last year and we’re better this year so we’ll just waltz right back to the final.” I remember that feeling all too well when the Mets lost in 2006. The “we’ll just be back here next year” feeling. But it’s never that easy. Way too many things can go wrong. With the exception of Kevin Klein missing Game 1 the Rangers are absurdly healthy going into the playoffs. No other team can boast the injury luck that the Rangers have. One injury to the wrong person and that can all change. Meanwhile the Penguins have a laundry list of players that are listed as ‘day-today’ and all I can think about is the wrong one coming back for Game 3 and completely changing the Penguins dynamic.
In the end the Rangers should get by the Penguins, as they should get by whoever is in their path (can someone PLEASE knock Tampa Bay out though). It won’t be easy but we should be in for another long and enjoyable playoff ride in New York this spring.