NEW YORK – The New York Rangers made quick work of the Pittsburgh Penguins, dispatching their Metropolitan Division foes in just five games during the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. After clinching the Presidents’ Trophy for the first time since 1994 -- which just so happens to be the last time they won the Stanley Cup -- the Rangers enter semifinal action with pressure to perform. Can they go all the way? Here are five things that need to happen if they want to be the last team standing come June.
1. Hank holds court: Dan Girardi was asked about Rangers star goaltender Henrik Lundqvist prior to the team’s Game 5 series-clinching victory, and the ironman defenseman gave about as glowing endorsement as possible for the former Vezina Trophy winner: “Hank’s playing like Hank.”
There was some legitimate concern about Lundqvist’s level of play and whether there would be some significant drop-off considering his lengthy absence while recovering from a frightening vascular injury in late January -- one that was later revealed to be potentially life-threatening. But it didn’t take long for Lundqvist to shake off the cobwebs. Asked recently about when he felt confident Lundqvist was back to form, coach Alain Vigneault said it was just 20 minutes into his first game back against the Boston Bruins on March 28. “Second period,” Vigneault said of Lundqvist’s start, when he coughed up three goals in the opening frame. From there on out, however, Lundqvist has resembled the elite goaltender he has been for several years. Battling against Pens netminder Marc-Andre Fleury, who was superb in a bounce-back postseason performance, Lundqvist surrendered only eight goals in five games.
“[He’s] been excellent,” former NHL goaltender and NHL goaltending coach Corey Hirsch said. “It’s hard to watch the other goalie stand on their head at the other end and then match him save for save.”
If Lundqvist can continue to hold steady between the pipes, the Rangers should be in good shape.
2. Get healthy: There’s no question that the Rangers can use the rest they are getting, especially with a few key players on the mend. The Blueshirts played the entire first round (and the last month of the regular season) without veteran defenseman Kevin Klein, who sustained a broken arm on March 11. Getting him back would be a huge boost to the team’s blue line. Another injury to monitor in the days ahead is that to skilled winger Mats Zuccarello, who was playing on the team’s first line with Rick Nash and Derick Brassard before he was forced from Game 5 with an injury after taking a slap shot to the face. It’s not immediately clear the nature or severity of Zuccarello’s injury, but the more time he gets to recover, the better. Any sort of rest at this time of year is an absolute luxury considering the daily grind of postseason action.
3. Activate on offense: The Rangers scored more than two goals only once in the first round -- in Game 2, their sole loss. Defensively, they were stout in containing Pittsburgh’s top players in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who was held off the score sheet for the entire series, but they can ease some of the pressure on Lundqvist by creating more in the offensive end.
The good news is that Nash had a really strong series, even if it did not reflect on the score sheet. The winger had a career-high 42 goals in the regular season and was active and engaged against Pittsburgh. Don’t be surprised to see him break out soon. Speedy winger Carl Hagelin also continues to shine in the playoffs, sealing the first-round series win with an overtime goal in Game 5. Hagelin, who had seven goals and 12 points in 25 playoff games last spring, has two goals and three points in the first round.
It also should help if the Rangers can keep rookie Kevin Hayes involved. The 22-year-old forward had a stellar 17-goal, 45-point season and notched his first playoff goal with his overtime tally in Game 4. As one scout told ESPN recently, his game and skill set will only improve the more comfortable he gets.
4. Special-teams savvy: Let us first begin with this caveat: It is not absolutely necessary to have a potent power play to succeed in the postseason. Check the special-teams stats for the Chicago Blackhawks of 2013 (11.4 percent), the Los Angeles Kings of 2012 (12.8 percent) and the Bruins of 2012 (11.4 percent). That being said, it certainly would not hurt the Rangers to get things going on the man-advantage. Judging by their first-round series against the Penguins, there is reason to believe improvement is imminent. The Rangers tallied three goals on 20 power-play opportunities, and they did it against one of the elite penalty-killing units in the league. The Pens finished first in the regular season in short-handed save percentage, and Fleury was Pittsburgh’s best player in the series.
5. Need for speed:The Rangers’ speed is what presents the toughest challenge to opponents. Vigneault led them to the Stanley Cup finals last season by exploiting that speed -- rolling four lines, utilizing the team’s depth and keeping shifts short. The result? Fresh legs. This year, Vigneault feels his team has added an extra dimension of speed, or maybe it just appears that way because of the way the Rangers play. New York’s defensemen have been able to make a first, quick pass out of their own zone and jump-start a strong transition game that is a handful for opposing teams.