It’s been a big year for hockey in New York, as the Rangers wind down a big regular season and now hope to duplicate the feat of their NFL counterpart*, the Giants, in bringing home a championship. New York has 109 points and has clinched the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference for the playoffs that start next Wednesday. Furthermore, they did it by winning what’s arguably the toughest division in all of sports (yes, including the AL East and the SEC West). Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are the East’s two other teams with 100+ points, and New Jersey at 98, is tied with Northeast Division-leading Boston for fourth overall. Division champs are slotted in the top three seeding spots, which is appropriate, but that should never obscure just how much good hockey is played in the Atlantic. TheSportsNotebook takes a deeper look at the Rangers—how they got here, who they rely on and if there’s anything we can learn from their recent form…
This is a team that’s built on defense. Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist is the biggest reason why, with his 93% save rate, and the Rangers are third in the league in goals allowed. This, along with the fact he plays in New York is one reason he’s an MVP candidate. One reason I think that’s overreaching—which we’ll discuss more on tomorrow when TheSportsNotebook evaluates the coming MVP vote—is that the defense is front of Lundqvist is no slouch themselves. Led by Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi, the defenseman don’t put up offensive numbers like their counterparts in Vancouver, but they dig in and do the hard work of preventing shots on goal—only five teams in the league have allowed fewer shorts than Lundqvist. So by all means praise the Ranger goaltender, but while you’re doing that be sure and hoist a glass to the men in front of him.
New York’s power play is below average, ranking 22nd in the league. The flip side of that is they don’t need a break on penalties to score, so given their own strong performance in the 5-on-5 game as well as the penalty kill where they’re a man short, I don’t think this will hinder them in the playoffs, though it’s certainly aggravating if you’re a fan and you have only minimal reason to get excited when you see an opposing player head to the box.
The Rangers didn’t play their best hockey over the last month, but nor was it a disaster. They faced a stiff challenge from Pittsburgh for the Atlantic title and the accompanying #1 seed, but were able to hold off the charge. I’ve gone back through the last month of games, and picked out seven bellwether matchups—teams that are among the top four in their conference in overall points, if not necessarily seeding. New York won four of those seven games. Here’s how it broke down…
March 4: Boston (4-3): A good back-and-forth game, but the Rangers never actually trailed. Richards handed two assists, and Derek Stepan scored the game-winner with under ten minutes to go in the third.
March 6: at New Jersey (1-4): Stepan scored early, but Lundqvist was beaten decisively in the third period, as the Devils scored three goals to break a 1-1 tie. This loss started a three-game losing streak, with the latter two also on the road.
March 15: Pittsburgh (2-5): Things went further downhill for Sidney Crosby’s celebrated return. Richards played well with two assists and the Rangers came from an early deficit to trail 3-2 after two periods. But again, third period defense was wanting, and the Penguins pulled away.
March 19: New Jersey (4-2): Callahan stepped up with two assists, while Brandon Dubinsky had a goal and an assist. But what I’m finding noteworthy by this point is the name that’s absent. Where’s Marian Gaborik? He hasn’t registered anything in these bellwether games thus far, and he’s not hurt.
March 21: Detroit (2-1, OT): Both regulation goals came in the first period and for New York the fact it was a power play was maybe a sign it was their night. Callahan scored the game-winner in OT. His strong play these last two games furthers my contention that his impact will be vital to this team’s postseason chances.
April 1: Boston (1-2): There’s a Gaborik sighting! He scores the team’s only goal, but the Bruins cash in a power play in the second period and Tim Thomas outduels Lundqvist in the hockey equivalent of Josh Beckett and C.C. Sabathia going head-to-head in the Bronx.
April 3: at Philadelphia (5-3): This was domination from the outset, with the Rangers getting four goals in the first. Two came on the power play, Richards had two assists and Gaborik tacked on a power play. Overall, the Rangers discovered the power play, cashing in three of six chances with the man advantage. On the surface, we might be concerned by a 40-24 deficit in shots attempted. However, given that this is the only game in the sequence where shot volume was an issue either way, I’m inclined to think this may have been a case of New York playing it more conservative, while Philadelphia just launched shots more or less at will trying to change the momentum. Box scores only tell you so much, but this seems like a logical conclusion to draw.
What other conclusions can we draw? First is that Gaborik seems to be getting back on his game just in time. The importance of Callahan is underscored and the steadiness of Richards really comes out when you look at his consistent assist numbers over a volume of games. And ultimately we can say this—while this list didn’t include games with West leaders St. Louis and Vancouver, everyone the Rangers played here can legitimately think of making a big run in the playoffs. New York won four times in seven, which is kinda, sorta a magic number around this time of year. I don’t see them as a dominant team, but they play good overall defense, have a goalie who can dominate, a scorer who can change a game, a center who knows how to run an offense and the possibility of some role players stepping up. Unless you’re Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers that’s all you can ask heading into a postseason.
*There’s a lot of counterpart possibilities in New York, but I’d consider the Rangers-Giants-Yankees to be a part of the New York Aristocracy, while the Islanders-Jets-Mets trio is the team of the God-fearing salt-of-the-earth New Yorker. The Knicks of course, are the great unifier, at least when they’re not an utter circus.