courtesy of NHL.com
Mission accomplished! The Rangers are in the playoffs yet again! The boys were able to get their first checkmark of the year via a 5-4 OT loss to the San Jose Sharks. Something like 11 out of the last 12 postseasons have featured the Rangers. A spectacular feat that could only be made better with the ultimate prize. The game against the Sharks wasn’t all that great. The Rangers’ latest shortcomings came to haunt them again so I decided to skip talking about that and instead look ahead to the postseason. So, let’s look at the state of the 2017 Rangers as they head to the playoffs.
- The first thing that jumps out at me is that the team is healthy. Hank’s back. Girardi and Klein are back. Alain Vigneault literally has 5 lines and 4 defensive pairings at his disposal over the final 5 games. This is a huge win for a few reasons. First and most obvious is the fact that Hank has come back in time to straighten his game out. As we’ve all noticed by now, Henrik Lundqvist has been mediocre-to-poor after long layoffs. So, over these next 5 games he can shake the rust off and get himself sharp ahead of the tournament. Goaltending might be the single most important thing in the playoffs, so the Rangers will once again only go as far as Lundqvist (or Antti Raanta???) can take them. Second is that fact that AV can pick his spots to rest some guys over the next week or so. Having an extra line and an extra D-pair who aren’t just taxi squad call-ups but legitimate NHLers gives Vigneault the ability to stagger rest days for the more important members of the team without potentially suffering a complete derailment of the team’s system and confidence. Yes, right now the only thing that would be derailed is a middling team, but this plays into my last point: The Rangers have the time and bodies to see what works. I’d like for there to be some continuity in the lines come playoff time, but now is the time for AV to tinker with the lineup if he wants. And he has plenty of time to do it before the games matter again.
- Speaking of tinkering with the lineup, it’s a good time to mention that the offense actually looks pretty good right now. Stepan and Nash are hot. Kreider and Zuccarello have sneakily been very effective lately, even if the former isn’t necessarily putting up a ton of points right now. Mika Zibanejad seems to finally be rounding into form after having his season interrupted by that broken leg in the fall, and JT Miller showed signed of shaking off his recent poor play with a 2-goal night in San Jose. That being said, here are the lines I’d like to see us at least start the playoffs with:
Krieder – Stepan – Zuccarello
Nash – Zibanejad – Buchnevich
Miller – Hayes – Grabner
Vesey – Lindberg – Fast
I think that the forward lines I’ve listed make the most sense for now. The Stepan line has been together for a while now and his clicking, with Stepan himself starting to fill up the scoresheet again. I know that Buchnevich hasn’t been in great form recently, but I like the idea of coupling his passing ability with the straight-line, power game Nash has been playing lately and the rocket shot that Zibanejad has. The third line is one we’ve seen for most of the year and I think Miller’s last game is reason enough to reunite arguably the most effective Ranger line all year. Finally, I’ve dropped Vesey to the 4th line but its not an indictment of his play. One thing I’ve noticed about him is his nose for the goal and ability to get into the tough areas of the ice and into the crease to score some greasy goals. I think that he and Fast could combine to forecheck well and create some of those grinding goals that teams find themselves looking for in these tightly-contested postseason games. And of course, Lindberg is underrated offensively, so the 4th could find itself scoring some goalscorer’s goals as well.
- Now that we’ve covered off the forwards, I want to look at the defensive pairings and share my thoughts on what would work best. Here’s my defensive lineup:
McDonagh – Skjei
Staal – Klein
Smith – Girardi
I know a couple things immediately jump out here. The first is Brady Skjei’s spot. Yes, it’s time for him to play top-pairing minutes. His two-way game has grown so much this year; he looks like Ryan McDonagh himself out there. The next point is that I’m dropping Nick Holden. It’s a tough call, especially since he’s had a pretty solid year and played the entire season, but he’s been completely lost out there lately. As I said in my last blog, I count experience over a flash in the pan by a 29-year-old journeyman. And I don’t want to hear about how he plays PP minutes. If you ask me, there is no reason why any D-man not named Skjei or McDonagh should be on that man advantage. The subtraction of Nick Holden isn’t going to make an offensively-challenged blue line worse at all. Plus, I’ll take the savvy of our vets over the 2 points Holden will score all postseason. Plus, with the egregious defensive zone breakdowns we’ve had, it makes sense to me to dress an ultra-defensive blue line that can shoulder the load in our own end zone. With these 5 remaining games, I look for AV to mix in Klein and Girardi to get them ready for the Rangers’ run.
- Aside from Hank’s ability to bounce back and play well, special teams is where the Rangers could make or break their postseason. The power-play has been fantastic lately. The Rangers have been moving the puck quickly, finding open lanes, and ultimately scoring goals. It’s the penalty kill that has been absolutely shambolic. The Rangers’ four-man PK unit doesn’t seem to move in concert, so as to hold their box shape. Too often you see 2-3 guys drawn to one side of the ice, leaving 1 defender alone with Hank as attacked swarm the net. I’ve also noticed that the d-men set up pretty high and allow opposing forwards to set up in front of net or get in behind them. This boils down to the Rangers’ need to be less aggressive on the penalty kill. I feel like they’re constantly looking for the shorthanded break, especially for Michael Grabner, instead of collapsing and compacting in front of their own net. Tighten up the box, boys.
In all, I’m really interested to see what happens with the Rangers this postseason. This last month of play has me worried that another 1st-round defeat is looming, but the offensive has the potential to blow anyone out, as they did in the first month of the season. Henrik Lundqvist, despite having an inconsistent year, can never be counted out and his supporting cast is filled with guys who were on the 2014 Cup Finalists and know what it takes to win in the playoffs. I’m not going to prognosticate some long run this year; a 2nd-round defeat is probably realistic given the Rangers’ defensive deficiencies. But, I can’t say I’d be surprised if this team went on a run. Hell, if the 2012 LA Kings can sneak into the playoffs as an 8 -seed and win the whole damn thing, what’s to say the Rangers couldn’t also catch fire? This is what makes the playoffs so fun: hope.