New York Rangers: 5 Keys to Making Deep Run in 2012 NHL Playoffs

Joe MaloneyContributor IIIMarch 28, 2012

New York Rangers: 5 Keys to Making Deep Run in 2012 NHL Playoffs

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    The New York Rangers currently sit atop the Eastern Conference with two tough divisional games remaining.

    The Rangers currently have 103 points, a slim three-point edge on Atlantic Division rival Pittsburgh.

    With six games remaining in the regular season, the Rangers look like the team favored to win the Eastern Conference title.

    With the team looking poised for a deep playoff run, here is a list of the keys to the Rangers making a serious run at the Stanley Cup.

A Clutch Captain

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    Entering the 2011-12 season, there were very few skeptical of Ryan Callahan's leadership ability. Anyone who has watched any of the Rangers' 69 games with the captain this season surely has not been disappointed in their expectations.

    Callahan currently has eight game-winning goals this season, most recently against Detroit on March 21st. Those eight wins account for 16 points of the Rangers' total. To put it in perspective, without those 16 points the Rangers would hold the eighth place spot in the Eastern Conference by one point.

    The latest of Callahan's heroics occurred Sunday when the captain's wrist shot past Maple Leafs goalie Jonas Gustavsson in the third round of a shootout won the game for the Blueshirts.

    This season, his first as captain of the Rangers, Callahan has set career highs in goals (27) and points (51), and is almost certain to surpass his previous assist total of 25.

    With the on-ice example Callahan sets, the rest of the team has followed suit and it makes the Rangers a dangerous, focused team for the stretch.

Stellar Goaltending

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    There is no question that the Rangers would not be the caliber of team they are without their king, Henrik Lundqvist. Lundqvist is having the best season of his young Rangers career, boasting a minuscule 1.93 goals against average and a .923 save percentage. 

    There is no doubt Lundqvist can perform to the standards of his competition and beyond. A large role we are unaccustomed to seeing which could play a factor is the amount of rest Lundqvist has received this season. Coach Tortorella was adamant at the start of the season that he would cut down on the amount of minutes his goalie logged to preserve his longevity and keep him fresh. The rest shows statistically, and should show in the playoffs.

    One concern going into this year's playoffs is Lundqvist's career 2.60 goals against average in the playoffs. While his numbers are ballooned by his rookie year's 4.41 goals against average, he will need to be sharper than years past, particularly with a potential Penguins series at some point.

    As always, Lundqvist will be in the conversation for the Vezina Trophy, and hopefully a Stanley Cup. 

Gaborik-Richards-Hagelin Line

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    The New York Rangers' top line is a makeshift line that has provided a major spark down the final stretch of the season. Makeshift because everyone predicted Richards and Gaborik to be linemates at the start of the season. But that was quickly derailed by a lack of trust by Coach Tortorella.

    The addition of Carl Hagelin, the NHL's fastest skater, has provided even more firepower to the first line. Now, as the regular season winds to a close and offense is hard to come by for the Rangers, the top line has been carrying the team of late and will need to continue if the Rangers are to have playoff success. 

    Marian Gaborik (38 goals, 31 assists) has 69 points in 76 games this season and is looking to complete his second 40-goal season out of his three in a Rangers uniform. Gaborik has 11 points (6 goals, 5 assists) in his last 10 games, a large part the result of Richards' passing.

    Brad Richards (24 goals, 36 assists) has 60 points in 76 games this season. While statistically this is one of Richards' worst seasons, the impact he has on the Rangers cannot be overlooked. Richards is a proven winner who provides faceoff reliability, pinpoint passing and two-way play. He has come on strong of late with 14 points (6 goals, 8 assists) in his last 10 games. These are points the Rangers will need to count on come playoff time.

    In just his first NHL season, Carl Hagelin (14 goals, 23 assists) has 37 points and is a plus-22. Few, if any, saw this production or perhaps even roster spot coming before the season. There is no doubt Hagelin opens up the playbook for the Rangers with his speed and skating ability. The addition of shooting the puck to the other end and letting Hagelin beat the defender has lead to multiple goals for the Rangers. Teams will struggle against his fresh legs and speed in the grind of the playoffs.

    The combination of these three players is a force to be reckoned with and can compare to any top line in the league right now. Look for this line to continue its dominance amidst a lengthy playoff run.

Secondary Scoring

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    There is no hiding the fact that the Rangers have been lacking in offensive firepower this entire season. It is that fact that prompted significant interest in Rick Nash at the trade deadline. Two weeks from the start of the 2012 playoffs, there is no Rick Nash, and thus other players are going to have to step up.

    Three players (Callahan, Gaborik, Richards) combine for 89 of the team's 209 goals this season.

    That's 43 percent.

    The playoffs are often a time where unlikely heroes are made, and regular season statistics can get put in the rear-view mirror. This is going to have to be the case for Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov and Derek Stepan. 

    Without harping on Dubinsky's offensive struggles this season, he needs to get back into the form he had a year ago to help this team in the playoffs. He has seven postseason goals for the Rangers in his career, and he is a streaky goal scorer. Look for Dubinsky to get hot come Round 1.

    Artem Anisimov and Derek Stepan are two players that are surprisingly under-performing this season. To their credit, both players have played well, particularly defensively, this season, but it is their offensive game that needs to show up for the playoffs. With only 30 goals combined this season, look for these two to step up their game when it matters the most.

An Identity

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    One question that has finally been answered by this year's team is, "Who are the New York Rangers?"

    In the years since the lockout, the Rangers seemed to struggle with deciding what type of team they were. The offense was never particularly strong and the defense was lackluster and filled with unproven players or fan targets such as Michael Roszival and Wade Redden. 

    This year, in his third full year with the team, Coach Tortorella seems to have molded the Rangers into a gritty, hard-working team. The combination of the coach's critical mentality and captain Ryan Callahan's dedication has shaped the Rangers into the hardest-working team in the NHL.

    Each and every player on the Rangers' roster is willing to block shots, check, play a two-way system and stand up for each other. Even superstars Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards have bought into participating in the grittier areas of the game. 

    Other teams around the league finally respect the Rangers as a tough opponent due to their will to win and passion. Look for the Rangers to only up the intensity come April.

    This is no longer a team that claws its way into the playoffs as a seventh or eighth seed. This is a team that has left many memories and bruises on the opponents they are likely to face again in the coming weeks.