Can a Healthy New York Rangers Club Get Back in the Stanley Cup Hunt?

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Can a Healthy New York Rangers Club Get Back in the Stanley Cup Hunt?
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Rick Nash has been the New York Rangers' most valuable player this season, and this was evident in Thursday night's impressive 4-1 victory over the high-powered Tampa Bay Lightning.

Nash made his return to the Blueshirts lineup after missing four games with an injury, and his team was 0-3-1 when he was unable to play. The 28-year-old winger tallied two points (one goal, one assist) and a career-high 12 shots on goal in Thursday's game.

Rangers captain Ryan Callahan praised Nash's effort (via Blueshirts United) in the victory over Tampa Bay:

"You can see what [Rick Nash] bring every shift," said Callahan. "How much talent he has, how much the other team has to defend him.

"It's tiring defending a guy like that who has such size and skill, and you can see the opportunities he creates when he's on the ice."

Nash now leads the Rangers in scoring with 14 points (four goals, 10 assists) despite playing in only 15 games this season. His return created a level of energy that was absent from the Rangers' lineup during the team's recent losing streak.

The Rangers have been hit hard by the injury bug this season, but give them credit for weathering the storm because as of Friday, they are just one point out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

It's not easy to stay above .500 when a team plays in the league's toughest division and has to deal with injuries to key players such as Nash, Michael Del Zotto and Ryan McDonagh.

Being healthy is important to the Rangers' success because of their lack of depth, specifically in the bottom-six forward group, but the key for this team's success is its best players performing at a high level on a consistent basis.

Too many of the Rangers' star players such as Brad Richards, Marian Gaborik and Ryan Callahan have been inconsistent this season, and it's incredibly tough for any club to win games when its top players are not being productive on a regular basis.

Unfortunately, for head coach John Tortorella, his team doesn't have enough depth at forward needed to compete with the other top teams in the East such as the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins.

Relying on players such as Richards and Gaborik to contribute offensively is too much of a risk going into the playoffs. These two players have combined for just three assists and zero goals in their last five games. Richards hasn't scored since January 26 and Gaborik has been unable to find the back of the net since Valentine's Day.

Is the 2013 Rangers roster worse than the 2011-12 version?

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Rangers general manager Glen Sather must make a move before the April 3 trade deadline to solidify his bottom-six and add some more offensive skill and grit to his lineup.

Losing Brandon Prust, Brandon Dubinsky, Michael Rupp and Ruslan Fedotenko has made the Blueshirts' a softer team than they were in 2011-12.

Offseason additions Arron Asham, Jeff Halpern and Taylor Pyatt have not proven that they can thrive in the Rangers' physical style of play, which demands that players block shots, back-check, rack up hits and fore-check aggressively.

New York's defensive play this season has been worse than it was last season, as the chart below helps explain:

Stat (NHL Rank) Takeaways Blocked Shots Hits GAA 5v5 GA Penalty Kill
2011-12 536 (17th) 1,338 (4th) 2,419 (1st) 2.22 (3rd) 132 (4th) 86.2% (5th)
2012-13* 96 (26th) 284 (16th) 578 (3rd) 2.47 (9th) 32 (13th) 84.3 (9th)
*19 games            

The Rangers' defensive performance, combined with Henrik Lundqvist's failure to live up to expectations has hurt the team's ability to win games on a consistent basis in 2013, evidenced by the fact that the Blueshirts have won back-to-back games just once this season. Lundqvist has not played as well as he did during his Vezina Trophy-winning campaign last year.

Lundqvist W/L/OT GAA SV%
2011-12 39-18-5 1.97 .930
2012-13 8-7-1 2.32 .917

Are the Rangers' defensive issues to blame for Lundqvist's performance this season? A little bit, but the veteran goaltender has not looked as sharp this season as he did in 2012.

Elsa/Getty Images

The best moves that Sather can make before the deadline are to acquire a veteran defenseman who is reliable in his own end, or a two-way forward that can add some scoring to the team's third line and be responsible defensively.

Top-six center Stephen Weiss of the Florida Panthers and top-pairing defenseman Dan Boyle of the San Jose Sharks would be the perfect additions for New York. It's hard to imagine Sather acquiring more than one impact player at the trade deadline given his team's salary cap space and the amount of players who need new contracts soon.

With that said, Weiss should be the top target for the Blueshirts' because he will address the team's lack of scoring and playmaking from the third line. He's also a versatile player, which would be good for the Rangers because Tortorella changes his lines a lot.

Even with a full roster that has no players missing because of injuries, New York doesn't have enough depth or toughness to win the Stanley Cup playing "Rangers hockey." You cannot win the Stanley Cup with just two dependable lines, which means Sather must make a few moves before the deadline to bolster his roster for the postseason.

 

Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. He was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs.

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