The New York Rangers sit in seventh place in the Eastern Conference with just 10 games remaining in the season. What are the keys to clinching a playoff spot?
The Rangers are fighting with six teams for, perhaps, three playoff spots. Of the teams—the New York Islanders, the Washington Capitals, the Winnipeg Jets, the New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers—the Rangers are clearly the most talented.
But talent doesn't mean everything. The Tampa Bay Lightning have one of the most talented offensive teams in hockey, and they are second-to-last in the conference.
The Rangers need to execute. In particular, a few players and units need to be at their best if they want to make the playoffs.
Which players and which units need to step up in order for the Rangers to clinch a playoff spot?
Read on to find out.
The New York Rangers have the 19th-ranked power play in the league, converting on 17.2 percent of their chances.
Of course, a lot of that is based on the fact that, in their last three games since the Marian Gaborik trade, the Rangers have scored on five of their 11 power play chances.
So, the 19th-ranked power play is a bit misleading.
That said, if the Rangers can continue their success on the power play, then watch out.
The biggest addition has been Ryane Clowe. The Rangers have long lacked a presence in front of the net who is willing to do the dirty work. That's one of Clowe's greatest strengths. By planting himself in front of the goaltender, he screens him, making it hard to see pucks. This makes it easier to score goals. If you can't see it, it's hard to stop it.
Thus, it's not surprise that the Rangers power play is better. For years, the Rangers haven't had a net presence and their woeful power play has suffered as a result. Now, with Clowe, they're much better off.
Additionally, they have two real power-play units. They can mix and match between Rick Nash, Derek Stepan, Ryan Callahan, Brad Richards, Brian Boyle, Ryane Clowe, Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello to put on the ice on the man advantage. That's depth that they didn't have at the beginning of the season.
The Rangers need to continue their hot power play if they want to make the playoffs. A bad power play just kills momentum.
All the talent is there, and the puck movement is much better, especially since Zuccarello has returned. Brassard is an excellent passer, as is Callahan, Stepan, Richards and Nash. That all leads to more opportunities for better shots. Better shots, with a screener in front, lead to goals.
This is, quite simply, a better power play since the Gaborik trade. If they can keep it up, then there's no reason that the Rangers cannot make the playoffs.
Brad Richards has been a bit of an enigma this season. The high-priced center has scored just six goals and has only 17 assists.
That's not enough for a player who, according to CapGeek, makes $12 million this season and carries a cap hit of $6.6 through 2020. Quite simply, he needs to do more.
There are encouraging signs. In four games in April, Richards has one goal and four assists, including three power-play points.
Richards needs to continue that through the rest of the season. He seems to be comfortable centering Ryane Clowe and Mats Zuccarello. That line has a nice combination of high-end skill and grit and should be able to produce points.
In addition, Richards has looked more assertive and confident on the power play. His passes are crisper, his shots are more accurate and that has been a big reason for the latest surge on the man advantage.
Richards needs to keep this up. The last few games have been encouraging.
But four games in April do not make a season. Richards needs to play like this for the rest of this season, and if all goes well, into the playoffs.
As part of the Marian Gaborik trade, the Rangers acquired defenseman John Moore.
With Marc Staal out and still not skating, according to the New York Daily News, the Rangers will need more from Moore.
Witty puns aside, the above statement is true. John Tortorella doesn't always play his third-pair defensemen—in fact, Moore played just over seven minutes in the win against Carolina. After playing a little over 16 minutes per game in March, Steve Eminger played just over eight minutes against Carolina.
Tortorella does rely on his top four. But that doesn't make the bottom two any less important. In fact, I believe they are as important. They may be playing limited minutes, but those minutes are necessary to keep the top four, particularly Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi, fresh and ready for the battles against opposing top lines.
If Moore and Eminger make a mistake that leads to a goal, then Tortorella will not hesitate to bench them. But that makes it harder for Girardi and McDonagh and will tire them out faster, limiting their effectiveness.
If they can play 10 minutes of solid hockey, then that's less time that the Rangers are wearing out Girardi and McDonagh.
It's simple—the more the Rangers can get from Moore and Eminger, the better.
Henrik Lundqvist is, and will always be, the ultimate key to any success the Rangers want to have.
It doesn't matter if the Rangers are scoring. Lundqvist needs to be at his best.
Lundqvist has been terrific all year. He has a 2.07 goals against average and a .928 save percentage.
In his last game against Carolina, Lundqvist let up just one goal on 49 shots. John Tortorella called it, according to the The New York Times, the "best I’ve seen him play since I’ve been here."
In fact, in the last three games, Lundqvist has been remarkable. He's let up just three goals on 103 shots.
It's impossible to think that Lundqvist will be that stingy for the rest of the season. But, he needs to be close. He needs to do everything he can to get the Rangers in the playoffs.
Lundqvist, when on his game, is the best goaltender in hockey. He is the goalie you want with the game on the line. The Rangers need him to play like that for the rest of the season if they want to make the playoffs.
It's as simple as that. The Rangers have built their team around Lundqvist, putting all the pressure and onus on him.
He's responded in the past. He needs to respond once again.